The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner Review
The British New Wave likely means different things to different people. There's arguably no single defining film, director or actor to represent the movement. The collection of talent involved celebrated non-conformity and shined a light on the struggle of the working class, but these same themes and ideas were basically repeated, with nuance, on several occasions. Among the actors, Albert Finney was boorish and forceful, Richard Harris was the definition of masculinity, and Tom Courtenay was a cunning idealist. Their plights were similar and akin to the alienation seen from Laurence Harvey and Richard Burton in those actors' entries. The separating line is drawn on interpretation of each individual character. In The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, his first film, and Billy Liar, Courtenay showed a flair for insubordinate dreamers. The roles of Colin Smith and Billy Fisher are quite separate, but it's Courtenay's performance in each that carries a potentially standard issue and now-dated effort to higher, more vital ground.
If the two Courtenay characters are different sides of the same coin, Colin is the strong-willed mischief maker and Billy is the harmless escapist. They converge at the refusal to conform to society’s ideals regardless of what’s in their best interest. Just because everyone else justifies playing the conformist game doesn’t mean individual rebellion is impossible. Courtenay, with his unique face and eyes sunken in over a hovering brow that make him seem much older, embodies both young men with a warm fearlessness that endears him to the viewer while still throwing up a healthy stiff arm to the outside world. As directed by Tony Richardson, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is one of the more freeing and empathy-filled peeks into a world most of us, on the surface, cannot identify with and have little obvious reason to explore.
Upon its 1962 release in Great Britain, the film joined its New Wave cousins by underscoring things not commonly seen in cinemas. Courtenay's Colin hails from Nottingham, the same industrial locale as Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Both movies originated from the pen of Alan Sillitoe, who also adapted his work into screenplays for the two pictures. As I mentioned, the themes of breaking loose and extreme reluctance to conform inhabit both stories, but the comparisons largely end there. They're in the same general realm without sharing any repetition. Loneliness paints a more timeless and true portrait for my taste. Colin finds himself in some trouble, completely of his own doing, and is hauled off to a boys juvenile detention center. His present at the borstal institution gets woven with his past at home. We see his troubles in both places - among his fellow delinquents and at the hands of an emotionless mother following the death of his father. The flashbacks (though they don’t feel much like flashbacks) frequently occur when Colin is running. It's difficult to say how much enjoyment he really takes from the act of running, but it's a means to something else.
The running puts him in good favour with the borstal governor (played by Michael Redgrave), who hopes with near obsession that Colin can defeat a local public school rival. Through the governor’s endorsement, Colin is able to climb the ranks of the borstal social system, at the expense of the former top runner who becomes so distraught that he tries to escape and ends up in solitary confinement. Colin tries to mitigate the damages, but he’s instead awarded unsupervised practice time to run the grounds. The governor lets it be known that a win against the school competition would bode well for Colin’s future freedom. Does he care though? Is that what’s really important, returning to his mother, younger siblings, and whatever man is currently sleeping in his father’s bed? This punishment was more the result of a vendetta the arresting officer developed against Colin because of the latter's insolence than a truly fitting rejoinder for pinching 70 or so quid. He wasn't any happier at home than he is at the institution. The film is quick to remind us that both scenarios are utterly hopeless.
After he robs the bakery, but prior to getting arrested by the coppers, Colin discusses the idea of work and, essentially, capitalism with his girlfriend. “It’s not that I don’t like work. It’s just that I don’t like the idea of slaving me guts out so the bosses can get all the profits. Seems all wrong to me,” he says. Seems all wrong indeed. So that’s what he has to look forward to when Colin regains his life on the outside of the detention center? The only saving grace seems to be the activity Colin unexpectedly excels at - running. The governor first notices Colin's talent during a game of soccer/football and later pins his hopes fully on the young delinquent in a five mile race. "He might be useful to us," Redgrave's character remarks early on. From the start, he's thinking how Colin can help him and the borstal instead of the intended rehabilitation of the boy. Here too, the idea is for Colin to run his heart out so that the governor benefits. Colin's prize - either an early release or campus prestige - would pale next to the governor's coveted bragging rights just as his earlier statement of dissatisfaction theorised.
His rebellion is a touch romanticised, but Courtenay gives the character such a gentle and authentic impudence that it all rings true. It also greatly helps that director and actor seem to have mastered the varying tone of the story. A scene like Colin looking at his father's now-empty deathbed before sitting down to strike a match and light a one pound note his mother had just given him is a truly moving way of humanising the character. However, we learn just as much about our long distance runner's loneliness by witnessing the rich smile that comes across his face while running unsupervised off the grounds. Here Colin seems to be finally happy. Maybe he likes the running, or the freedom, or the memories of his girl Audrey, but what we see is as genuine as anything in the film. He's taking great pleasure in the whole ordeal, making the best of the situation. And as Colin is bounding through nature, director of photography Walter Lassally captures some extraordinary shots, complemented by a brass heavy score triumphantly bursting forth.
This second half of the film seems somewhat happier overall and finds Colin popular in the present and nostalgic for the past. As the day of the competition arrives, the governor's confidence has grown obnoxiously strong. Little doubt exists as to Colin's victory. A delicious curve ball is on the horizon, though. By denying the cheering onlookers the satisfaction of a win that means nothing to him, Colin lacerates their expectations and demonstrates a self-reliant independence all too rare in film and life. How dare someone have different ideas of what constitutes success and accomplishment. There are strict rules of normalcy we’re constantly told to abide by. Otherwise, we might seem different or unique, heaven forbid. Sputtering to a stop, Colin half-grins his way to a defiant personal victory. It’s one of the most satisfying displays of rebellion I’ve ever seen on film. And it absolutely kills me. There's no greater or more meaningful conclusion possible here. It's absolute, sheer perfection.
And yet, as invigorating as Loneliness and Billy Liar can be, they’re ultimately somewhat defeatist from a practical standpoint. That is, if you adhere to the societal definition of success and defeat. Individually, Billy and Colin both win, very much in their own ways, but they also at least seem doomed to lives undoubtedly plagued by the creeping intervention of reality. Each character makes a life-altering decision and each film conveniently ends without forcing the bitter pill of the resulting consequences down the audience’s throat. Living on principles and refusing to conform either results, as in Saturday Night, in a breaking of ideals or an extremely difficult trek through the abyss. The reality doesn't nag for me in Loneliness, though, and I see the film as more inspiring than despairing. There's hope at least that Colin Smith will make his own way, on his own terms - winning for himself instead of others.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner hits Blu-ray courtesy of the BFI. A simultaneous DVD release is also available, with the same bonus material, to update the disc that went out of print a year or two ago. The Blu-ray is encoded to play only on Region B machines and is a single-layered BD25.
The BFI transfer was done by Warner Bros., which controls the film in R1, and it's unfortunately in the incorrect aspect ratio of 1.78:1, just like the Warner R1 DVD. The previous BFI transfer was accurately presented at 1.66:1, though reports indicate a strong preference for the quality of the new transfer. Considering how brilliant it looks that's quite understandable. There's nary any damage to speak of here. Detail is uniformly excellent. Contrast shows rather bright whites, but is still up to the task. Those averse to grain may take pause as some scenes especially are infused with higher levels than others. The only instance where the grain becomes too much is at the start of the bakery break-in. Otherwise, the inconsistency is noticeable but not overly distracting. One other nag is that I'd like to have seen BFI use a dual-layered BD50 to increase the bitrate a shade.
An uncompressed PCM mono track is our lone audio option. I found it to be a bit low, especially in comparison to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The score seemed to come through with less of a struggle. The combination of the dialogue being a little quiet and the somewhat heavy accents meant I watched with the subtitles on throughout the entire picture. They're white in colour and in English for the hearing impaired.
A commentary featuring film historian Robert Murphy, Tom Courtenay and Alan Sillitoe is a welcome holdover from the previous BFI disc. The men were recorded separately, with Murphy speaking the most, Sillitoe contributing when necessary, and Courtenay only popping in for a few comments here and there. Though the track sputters out and there's still a good bit of inactivity, I found it to be a marvelous listen. Admirers of the film should definitely give it a try. Murphy makes a couple of criticisms in the latter half that seem disagreeable, but maybe I just enjoy the film an inordinate amount.
Joining the commentary are a video essay (18:51) by cinematographer Walter Lassally and Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson's 1956 documentary short "Momma Don't Allow." Both are presented in HD. The video essay is really more of a selected scene commentary track, with Lassally speaking over clips from the film. He does also briefly mention "Momma Don't Allow," which he shot. Lassally's comments are an enormously nice touch and provide another opportunity to view some of the most evocative portions of the film once again. "Momma Don't Allow" looks to have been sourced from a beat-up print and shows a good deal of damage, though the booklet does note it was shot on 16mm. The wordless short film has a loose, barely there narrative and mostly shows young people dancing at a jazz club. I'm not sure how well it's held up. The booklet write-up emphasises the short's early embrace of the "youth culture" of the time.
As usual, the BFI has included said booklet inside the case. There are short pieces on the film and director Tony Richardson written by Philip Kemp. The essay on Loneliness is surprisingly reserved in its praise and musters little more than calling the film a "key transitional work." Plenty of stills and even briefer write-ups on Alan Sillitoe, "Momma Don't Allow," and the Free Cinema movement help to pad it out.
With so few studios and distributors releasing older films on Blu-ray, the BFI's work here and elsewhere is increasingly vital. It's particularly appreciated when the result is such an impressive edition as we have with The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. The incorrect aspect ratio, which I understand as being sourced from an HD transfer done by Warner Bros., is mildly frustrating, but hardly fatal and better than the alternative of no release at all. A film this special, with relevant, insightful extras to boot, deserves to be seen repeatedly in the best possible presentation. Well done BFI.