Look Back in Anger Review

Jimmy Porter (Richard Burton) lives with his wife Alison (Mary Ure) and his partner in a market stall Cliff (Gary Raymond). University-educated, Jimmy lashes out at all around him, especially Alison but also her friend Helena (Claire Bloom). But when Alison falls pregnant, it's time for a reckoning.

John Osborne’s play was first staged in 1956 at the Royal Court. The play was not initially a success, with initial reviews being dismissive of it until famously Kenneth Tynan in The Observer proclaimed its merits. Look Back in Anger is a landmark in British theatre, and one example of a title of a creative work that has passed into the English language. (My favourite reference to it would be The Guardian's headline about cutbacks to the library service in Essex: “Book Lack in Ongar”.)

Look Back in Anger may be a landmark, but it's one that needs to be taken in context of its time. By 1956 Great Britain was emerging from a long period of post-war austerity, and a younger generation was growing up that was beginning to chafe at the restrictions placed on them: a culture of deference, of stifling emotional responses, not least sexual ones, under a thick veneer of respectability. And eventually, this dissatisfaction found its way into the works of new playwrights like Osborne and new novelists like Kingsley Amis. Look Back in Anger must have seemed very fresh in an era of drawing-room comedies and conventional “well-made plays”, a play about life as it was lived now, a play about something that mattered. Commentators of the time noted a movement and they called them The Angry Young Men. (And they were all men – female playwrights like Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey) and Ann Jellicoe (The Knack) came a little later. Delaney is more usually allied with the northern school of Kitchen Sink Realism, while Jellicoe’s most famous play, itself filmed in 1965, seems paradoxically quite sexist in its treatment of women. And some of the older playwrights who suddenly found themselves out of fashion, such as Terence Rattigan, have more recently had their reputations rehabilitated.)

Inevitably, the film industry took notice, and many of the leading works of the Angry Young Men were filmed, the recently-instituted X certificate allowing more adult material to be dealt with in the cinema. (Look Back in Anger was X-rated on its cinema release, though it now earns a PG.) Nigel Kneale adapted the play for the screen and Tony Richardson, who had directed the stage production in London and had taken it to Broadway, made his feature debut as director, with Mary Ure reprising her theatrical role as Alison.

Many young rebels become lifelong mavericks, but too often today’s Young Turk is tomorrow’s Boring Old Fart. It was Osborne’s fate (as it was Amis’s and others’) to mutate from an Angry Young Man to a Reactionary Old Man. You can see why some high-powered actors were drawn to his plays: Osborne’s powerful gift for rhetoric quite often makes up for a shaky dramatic structure. Several of his plays have been filmed: the not dissimilar Inadmissible Evidence, the last British black and white film of the 1960s, and the historical pieces Luther (filmed for the American Film Theatre project) and A Patriot for Me (filmed as Colonel Redl by Istvan Szabo, with a tremendous lead performance from Klaus Maria Brandauer).

But the society that Jimmy Porter railed against in the mid-Fifties no longer exists, Porter’s rhetoric still survives but he comes over as a self-pitying whinger. That could be excused in a man in his early-to-mid twenties, as in the play, but Richard Burton (thirty-three at the time) is simply too old for our sympathy. That’s a pity, as otherwise it’s a powerful Burton performance as he was born to deliver dialogue like this. (And that’s why he excelled almost a decade later in another stage adaptation, Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.) In particular, his treatment of the women in his life – Alison and Helena, the latter initially despising him but later succumbing to his charms and becoming his mistress – is most charitably described as pre-feminist.

What remains is a well-made and well-acted film of a play that shows its age. Tony Richardson does his best to make the play cinematic, but a filmed play it remains. As is often the case, a new director is partnered with an experienced DP – in this case the great Oswald Morris, whose black and white camerawork (at the time, filming something as “realistic” as this in colour would be most unusual) is an asset. Richardson was to stay in urban-realist mode with two more stage adaptations, Osborne's The Entertainer and Delaney's A Taste of Honey and a book adaptation, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, notwithstanding a brief trip to Hollywood with a little-seen version of William Faulkner's novel Sanctuary, before scoring a big success with one of the key British films of the 1960s, Tom Jones.


Look Back in Anger is released as part of Optimum’s Tony Richardson Collection on a single-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only. (It may be that their earlier release of A Taste of Honey, released as part of a batch of four Sixties Classics, might be repackaged as part of the collection as well, though this is speculation on my part.)

It’s hit and miss with Optimum’s 1.66:1 titles whether you get anamorphic enhancement or not. In this case, as with A Taste of Honey, you don’t. It's by no means a bad transfer, with blacks, whites and all the greys in between as they should be, though just short of the sharpness an anamorphic transfer might have given it.

The soundtrack is the original mono and a well-balanced track supporting a very dialogue-driven film. Unfortunately, as per Optimum policy for English-language releases, there are no subtitles available.

The only extra is the theatrical trailer (3:00).

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