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Look Back in Anger (1959)

Main image of Look Back in Anger (1959)
35mm, black and white, 101 mins
DirectorTony Richardson
Production CompanyWoodfall Film Productions
ProducerGordon L.T. Scott
ScreenplayNigel Kneale
Additional dialogueJohn Osborne
Original playJohn Osborne
PhotographyOswald Morris

Cast: Richard Burton (Jimmy Porter); Claire Bloom (Helena Charles); Mary Ure (Alison Porter); Edith Evans (Mrs. Tanner); Gary Raymond (Cliff)

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Jimmy Porter, an 'angry young man', has a wife from an upper-middle class background, Alison, and runs a sweet stall. He mistreats Alison and she leaves. Jimmy has an affair with her friend Helena, who was initially hostile to him, but then learns that Alison is pregnant.

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John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger, directed by Tony Richardson, had caused a storm at the Royal Court in 1956, and the pair formed Woodfall Films to make this film version, released in 1959.

The play had a huge impact, launching the 'angry young man' movement of disaffected young British writers and artists, who dared to criticise the complacency of post-war Britain. It made the 'new wave' possible, but paradoxically has held up far less well than the films that followed.

Why should this be? Partly it is because the film still seems stuck on stage. There are none of the stylistic experiments that fill Richardson's later work and the attempts to open the play out for camera seem half-hearted. It remains full of talk - endless diatribes ranging from the occasionally invigorating to the often deeply tiresome.

Look Back in Anger seems much more dated than the other films of the 'new wave' in content and in style. What really grates though is Jimmy himself. He might have been the main attraction in 1956 but he seems whining, petty and mean nearly half a century on. His bile may have an element of truth behind it but it is directed at those who care for him. He seems to make it a point of principle to do nothing about his anger other than bully his wife.

Nowadays much of the new wave is unfairly dismissed as chauvinistic. In Look Back in Anger, however it is undeniable. Of course, much of the misogynistic hatred expressed is in the character, and one has to be careful to distinguish between the overt and underlying expressions within a film. It does muddy the waters knowing about Osborne's own woman-hating tendencies (his autobiographies are full of complaints about his wives) in later years. There is a sense though that we are supposed to like Jimmy and empathise with his actions, which is disturbing. Look Back in Anger is grim viewing these days both because these are grim people to spend time with and because there is no sense that we are having any kind of enlightening experience through suffering. Behind the bluster it has little of interest to say.

Phil Wickham

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Video Clips
Monthly Film Bulletin review
This Sporting Life (1963)
Addison, John (1920-1998)
Best, Richard (1916-2004)
Burton, Richard (1925-1984)
Davenport, Nigel (1928-2013)
Evans, Edith (1888-1976)
Morris, Oswald (1915-)
Osborne, John (1929-1994)
Pleasence, Donald (1919-1995)
Richardson, Tony (1928-1991)
British New Wave
The 'Angry Young Men'