Billy Liar Review
As one of the few entries in the 1960s British New Wave which showed its frustration through humor rather than anger, Billy Liar must be said to have aged particularly well. It manages to steal emotions via fantasy sequences and an often frustrating protagonist, played by Tom Courtenay. Any hint of angst is generally buried beneath the surface in Courtenay's Billy Fisher. Though he may harbor many of the same struggles familiar to the time, Billy vents in a completely different way. He doesn't go off yelling or getting into fights. He merely imagines himself mowing down his family with military-grade weaponry at the breakfast table and daydreams of an invented country of which he's the ruler. Still, the message is no less clear, as the protagonist here feels just as trapped and alienated as his cinematic contemporaries.
Director John Schlesinger, making his second feature after debuting with A Kind of Loving, ably guided a story to the big screen which had already found success as both a novel and a stage play. Keith Waterhouse, along with Willis Hall, adapted his novel into a play starring Albert Finney and directed by Lindsay Anderson. Finney's eventual replacement was Courtenay, who then snagged the film role soon after breaking out with The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. It's easy to see why Courtenay was the one who brought Billy to life on celluloid. Even though there have been numerous incarnations of the character since the film, including both British and American television versions and even a musical on the stage, the good-natured dreamer seen here feels definitive. Had Billy been less likable or sympathetic the entire thing would have collapsed. His behavior alone tends to strain the viewer's patience but Courtenay summons up enough charm so as to make Billy seem innocuous.
By most measures the character should probably be read as troubled and at the very least unable to cope with everyday life. He frequently exaggerates and lies to avoid dealing with reality. His job working with an undertaker has been sort of tainted by a mishap involving a couple hundred calendars and the money Billy was supposed to (but did not) use for postage. Life at home with the family is, at best, strained. There are two girls to whom Billy is engaged and a third, played by Julie Christie, he asks to marry him. It's this last one, a pretty local whose adventurous nature has already taken her away from the smothering Northern locale Billy claims to want to leave, who might be the key to a different life. What ultimately hangs over the final portion of the film is whether Billy really desires or is ready for that change he seems to outwardly crave.
To love Billy Liar one probably has to love Billy Fisher, and that can be a difficult task at times. When I see this movie I always want Billy to take the train with Julie Christie to London, and then I hate it when he doesn't. It just seems like clearly the best thing for him. The alternative of staying where he is, of picking up the pieces from two failed engagements and no longer having his job, could hardly be less enticing. So it is that we become emotionally invested in a character whose fictional flaws somehow feel relatable and whose path veers awkwardly with a pain that inflicts its vicarious damage over and over again with each watch. To some extent, that's the final takeaway - an unsatisfying burn of an ending where Billy has a way out within reach but cannot muster the strength to take it.
The film's ending is one which possibly makes us respect it more as a result but that still feels like a salve which barely lessens the sting. There could hardly be a more downbeat turn of events than what ultimately occurs here. The story sets up every reason imaginable, save for the death of his grandmother leaving a clear void at home, for Billy to finally embark on a new journey and then he opts against it. There's simply no way to feel good about Billy getting off the train to buy two cartons of milk. It's representative of a much larger struggle to break free. Just as Courtenay played for a supremely cathartic finish in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, here he finds himself having to deny it at very much the same level. The brilliance and balance of pitch perfect tone in what came before shouldn't be overlooked, but the final result is utterly devastating. That it somehow never feels overly manipulative or even inconsistent, with it actually shading Billy's troubles even more grey, is a testament to all those involved in the picture, a landmark in British cinema as strong now as when first released.
StudioCanal brings Billy Liar to Blu-ray for its 50th Anniversary in a new restoration. The Region B disc is dual-layered and contains a nice selection of extra features.
Presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the film looks its best yet here for the home viewer. Detail shines through nicely, with no damage at all on display. A layer of grain can be seen but never appears to be overly prominent. The image is generally consistent, with only contrast maybe varying slightly at times. On the whole, the blacks look sufficient but I did notice a few instances that are less silvery monochrome than perhaps would be ideal. No cause for real concern, though, and the picture has a pleasing look to it which should satisfy the majority of viewers. Those hoping for or wanting an image more crisp and modern are probably being somewhat unrealistic given the apparent starting point here. Some small improvements are indeed perhaps feasible, but this still rises handily above the earlier standard definitions offerings including the now out of print Criterion Collection edition.
The audio track is an English DTS-HD 2.0 mix. It emits dialogue cleanly, without issue. There are no struggles or inconsistencies caused by the track. Music is similarly clear. I heard nothing in the way of pops or crackles in the audio. It's not a terribly impressive listen but does nonetheless stand as a fairly proficient one. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included, though I noticed they don't seem to cover every line of dialogue being spoken.
The bonus material found here provides a bit of added value for fans of the film. First is a piece (9:43) containing separate interviews with Tom Courtenay and Helen Fraser. It would have been nice to maybe hear a little more, particularly from Courtenay, but any sort of newly filmed inclusion is still much appreciated. Another interview (11:59) features Richard Ayoade, who directed the not entirely dissimilar Submarine, talking about the movie and, particularly, its ending.
A neat inclusion is "A Look Through the Keith Waterhouse Archive with Britain Library Curator Zoe Wilcox" (12:30) which mostly touches on some of the author's early, unpublished ideas pre-Billy Liar that helped to shade in his signature creation. There's a final interview (9:34), with Bob Stanley of the band Saint Etienne, that adds a touch more appreciation to the party.
A collection of twenty-one stills is included in a Behind the Scenes gallery. Meanwhile, there's also a lengthy trailer (4:05) apparently from the original release and presented in letterboxed standard definition.