Director: Lindsay Anderson
Screenplay: David Storey
Based on a Novel by: David Storey
Starring: Richard Harris, Rachel Roberts, Alan Badel, William Hartnell
Producer: Karel Reisz
Running Time: 134 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
After watching Lindsay Anderson's excellent if.... last week, I was excited to travel back through the British director's career to watch and review his previous feature, This Sporting Life. Like if.... this is considered a landmark of British cinema and is still held in high regard to this day. Luckily for me, who hasn't seen the film, Network decided to re-release This Sporting Life on Blu-Ray the same day that Eureka will be releasing if.... and offered me a screener so that I could cobble together a review for you fine people.
This Sporting Life is centered around Frank Machin (Richard Harris), a tough miner who lodges with a widow, Margaret (Rachel Roberts), and her two children. He develops feelings for her, but she won't open up to him, largely because the shadow of her dead husband still looms over the household. In a bid to raise his social standing and win her over, Frank uses his competitive nature and strength to win a place on the local rugby team. This proves to be a success, with his dirty tactics and brute force placing him highly against his fellow players. His rough handed approach to life alienates him though and, although he gets close, he still struggles to win the hand of Margaret. That fact, added to the frustration of being treated like a commodity by the rugby team owners, makes his rage difficult to control.
I won't lie, I didn't get drawn into This Sporting Life quite as I did with if.... However, it's still a remarkably well crafted film so I can't criticise it all that much and have still given it a high rating. It's a long and slow-moving film which didn't help, but the main reason I probably didn't fall in love with the film is that I'm not the biggest fan of the 'kitchen sink' drama, as this style of social realism is often known. I've always had strong feelings about anything that fits a stereotype and for this reason the kitchen sink and period drama formats have always bothered me when approaching British film. I always get annoyed when British directors make the same old style of films again and again, which is another reason why if.... impressed me so much. Realising that This Sporting Life came only a couple of years into the emergence of the kitchen sink drama gives it a pass though on that front, so really I should focus on the positive aspects of the film and there are plenty.
Front and foremost we have Richard Harris. His accent may falter slightly from time to time, but that's irrelevant when he delivers a performance with so much depth and power. As well as effortlessly pulling off the bullish cockiness required on the surface of the character, he's also exceptionally good at building the character's frustration, anger and regret throughout the film. The character doesn't know how to openly show emotion, except to lash out or simply take what he wants, but Harris knows how to show it beneath the surface.
The film in general is very good at playing with an underlying subtext. In the first half of the film for instance, we see Frank becoming very successful on the rugby pitch and even getting closer to Margaret, but throughout you can't shake a feeling of sadness and impending doom. This is largely done through the use of the flashback structure. In the first half we intercut between Frank's burgeoning career and him getting some broken teeth removed then joining an after-match party following this. We can see from Frank's demeanour and actions at the dentist and party that things aren't going as swimmingly as they should from his blossoming success. Little touches like Frank's team number being 13 also help add to this feeling of Frank being doomed to failure.
This being a British kitchen sink drama, the film also looks at the class system. Frank gets a taste of the high life, being a well paid sportsman, but his showing off doesn't win him any friends in the housing estate in which he lives. Margaret is ashamed to be seen enjoying the luxuries he brings because of her devotion to her dead husband and worries what the neighbours think. On the other side of the social spectrum, the middle/upper class sports team and mine owners have little respect for Frank either. They're friendly enough to him when they're happy with his work, but are clearly only interested in him as a business asset and the two owners toss his affections around with little thought for his feelings or frustrations.
On a visual level, Anderson shoots the film almost like a noir. The shadows and contrast are very strong and everything looks particularly cinematic. This is a welcome change to the shaky washed out 'gritty' style of most modern social realist pieces. The locations and sets (if there were any) still seem authentic and lived in, but Anderson and his camera team shoot them beautifully. The rugby scenes are particularly well executed too. These are extremely kinetic, with fast paced editing and loose camerawork, making them stand out from the rest of the film. This is where Frank's brutish behaviour actually works in his favour so they feel detached from everything else. They're quite surreally presented in fact, with the on-pitch sound effects exaggerated and the camera angles often skewed. In the final rugby scene however, when Frank has lost everything, the sadness seeps in and even his game is affected, so the pacing of the scene slows and negative reactions from the crowd can be heard.
It's a grim and tough film that is hard to truly fall for as I admitted myself near the beginning of this review, but nonetheless it is social drama at its best. Anderson once again proves he is a master of his craft and Harris pulls off a staggeringly good performance, probably still his best despite remaining great for decades following this. It's a shame he's probably better known these days for playing Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films.
This Sporting Life is out on 9th June in the UK on Blu-Ray, released by Network as part of their The British Film series. The picture quality is excellent. There are some very minor flecks here and their, showing the film's age, but overall the detail and contrast handling is very impressive. The soundtrack seemed strong to me too.
Unfortunately there aren't a huge amount of features, only a bunch of photo galleries and a trailer.
The original theatrical trailer: