Saturday, June 22, 2013

This Sporting Life - film review

Lindsay Anderson is best known for 2 movies, 1969's  If..., about a student rebellion at a boarding school, which brought fame to Malcolm MacDowell, and 1973's O Lucky Man, in which MacDowell cements his reputation as a young man with a curled lip who bears watching.
But before that, in 1963 Anderson made the film This Sporting Life, which is in its own way a more powerful story about the disaffected.

Richard Harris stars as Frankie Machin, a working class brawler who pushes himself to be selected for the local professional rugby team. One fragment of story at a time, we come to understand his living situation - he rooms with a widow, Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts), and her two young children. Eventually we learn that her husband died in an accident at the factory owned by Gerald Weaver (Alan Badell), the man who casts the deciding vote to pay Machin what he asks to join the rugby team.

A semi-articulate brute, Machin swaggers with the status his rugby prowess gives him, but he's attracted to Margaret, in whom he senses another broken soul. She smiles only a few times in the entire film, emotionally ravaged by her husband's death (she polishes his work-boots every evening), unwilling to open her heart again.

Machin, a child himself in some ways, is good to her children, but Hammond is wary of his brutish nature - he hits her a couple of times, and once nearly rapes her.  Still, you think they could work it out, until the evening he takes her out in a new fur coat to a fancy restaurant popular with the team's owners. There his boorish behavior embarrasses her, while those his rudeness targets simply ignore him in that chilly English manner which epitomizes class division.

The film has a gritty look: black and white, with the sound of bodies - no helmets, no padding - crunching, blood and mud smearing the players' white shorts and shirts. The camera lingers on Harris' flat forehead and hawk nose, the pensive strained beauty of Rachel Roberts, the hemmed-in landscape of rain-glazed narrow streets or a skyline of roofs studded with chimney-pots against a steely sky.

One of the difficulties of adapting for the screen is the mismatch between the complexity of a novel and the 90 to 120 minutes allotted a movie. Novelist David Storey's screenplay, as too often happens, pursues multiple story-lines to the detriment of the film: Machin's relationship with an older man, "Dad" Johnson (William Hartnell), who supports his ambition, provides a strong thread - until Johnson fades out of the story. Likewise, we see the greed and bloodthirstiness of the team's owners who live vicariously through the brutal sport, and for a while it seems Machin will turn his rough strength on them. But that potential we sense in Machin to defy the circumstances of his life and class, doesn't materialize. He loves Hammond, and perhaps she loves him, but unable to cope with his untamable behavior, she suffers a brain hemorrhage and dies.

Any of these threads could have made a strong story: Machin relying on then finally rejecting Johnson; Machin turning his toughness on Weaver and the other owners; Machin and Hammond trying and failing to connect through love. By pursuing all three, Storey and Anderson leave us dissatisfied.
Still, two powerful performances make this flawed film worth watching: Richard Harris, a cross between Paul Newman's Hud and Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski (or perhaps Johnny in The Wild Ones), plays a feral man who punches his team captain during a scrum while pretending the assault was by an opposing player, yet cavorts happily with Hammond's young children; and Rachel Roberts, a blunt-spoken woman wounded by loss, who puts up a harsh facade to protect herself and her family. These two could heal each other, if the world would leave them alone long enough. But they are trapped in the town where their past looms, and the gossip and contempt of neighbors curdles their intimacy. You want them to break free together, but their entrapment is the essence of their working class lives.

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