Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Details: 104 mins, United Kingdom, English
Synopsis: A rebellious youth, sentenced to a boy’s reformatory for robbing a bakery, rises through the ranks of the institution through his prowess as a long distance runner. During his solitary runs, reveries of his life and times before his incarceration lead him to re-evaluate his privileged status as the Governor’s prize runner.
It was this ability to pinpoint the essence of young Britain that made Tony Richardson the cause celebre of his day.
In the years immediately following World War II, British cinema spent a very successful period looking backwards. The nation\'s film output mirrored its buoyant mood and cinemas were filled with patrons revelling in tales of wartime glory like Charles Frend’s The Cruel Sea (1953), Michael Anderson’s The Dam Busters (1954), Guy Hamilton’s The Colditz Story (1955) and Lewis Gilbert’s Reach for the Sky (1956). In fact, some of the country’s greatest screen triumphs looked way back - Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948), for example, or David Lean’s adaptations of Dickens\' literature.
But no one wanted to tell contemporary British stories. Overcrowded suburbs led to youth crime and urban and domestic violence; rising unemployment proved the scourge of England’s young men, leading to a rock’n’roll-led thumbing of their collective nose towards the establishment. No one wanted to finance these stories; no one knew how to make them.
Until Tony Richardson made Look Back In Anger (1958). This caustic social drama pitted a young, angry man (Richard Burton) against the upper class in a confined space – the perfect metaphor for life in England.
The British New Wave was born – Kitchen Sink Realism, as it became known – and the lives of young, modern Brits finally had a cinematic voice.
Richardson continued to lead the charge of the new wave of storytellers (amongst them, John Schlesinger, Carol Reed and Lindsay Anderson) with his film A Taste Of Honey (1962). But it was his anti-establishment drama The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner (1963) that would come to represent the pinnacle of the creative movement that would infuse British filmmaking for decades.
Loneliness follows the entry into reform-school of Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay), a young man who has slid off the rails following the passing of his father and the subsequent unravelling of a home life that provided his only stability. Petty criminal acts inspired by anger and frustration lead to Colin being shipped off to Ruxton Towers Reformatory, where the young inmates are all similarly distracted and bitter about what their country now offers them. Colin immerses himself in his athleticism, soon catching the eye of The Governor (Michael Redgrave), who must beat a rival school in the upcoming cross-country running carnival.
In his debut performance, Tom Courtenay is a marvel. With a wicked mouth and a permanently-furrowed brow, he created the perfect anti-hero for the youth of 1963 England – bound by the Establishment’s rules, but street-smart enough to use them to his advantage.
Courtenay, bearing a distracting resemblance to Billy Elliott star Jamie Bell, draws the viewer into his plight, even if he’s standing at the back of a crowded room. His sly confrontations with the legendary Redgrave and the reformatory psychologist Peter Duguid are pitch-perfect. One scene in particular - a word-association session with Duguid that has Courtenay turn the tables on the good doctor – is one of those rare moments in cinema when every element gels in the creative process of filmmaking. It’s exhilarating to watch.
Richardson shows a patient hand with his lead character. Assured use of flashbacks and interlocking dialogue slowly reveal the complexities of Colin’s life and how a young man of such promise could have fallen so far in society’s eyes.
It was this ability to pinpoint the essence of young Britain that made Tony Richardson the cause celebre of his day. At the forefront of the New Wave, Richardson and his contemporaries not only ensured cinema remained the relevant medium for the distracted youth, but that the British film industry had forward momentum. From the Kitchen Sink Realism movement, films such as Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) or Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996) take their urgency. The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner will forever hold a place in British cinema history for embodying the spirit of the New Wave generation.
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