Friday, September 9, 2022

Looking Back in Admiration . . . or Anger

Yesterday the airwaves were full of the news that Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s reigning monarch for a remarkable seventy years, had passed away at 96. Though the British monarchy certainly has its detractors, the loss of a woman marked by dignity and a strong sense of obligation to the commonweal was regarded by most of the world as a poignant moment. Looking back on her ascension to the throne as a 25-year-old in 1952, I realize that her reign coincided almost exactly with something brand-new on the British stage: the Angry Young Man.

 It all started with a 1956 play by John Osborne, one that ushered in plays, films, and fiction marked by a furious disdain for the status quo. Alan Sillitoe, who was to write such lacerating works as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, said of Osborne that he "didn't contribute to British theatre, he set off a landmine and blew most of it up." Osborne’s semi-autobiographical Look Back in Anger, disdained by most critics but hailed by a prescient few as the shape of things to come, focuses in on the crumbling marriage of a young working-class man, Jimmy Porter, and his more pedigreed wife, Alison. Jimmy has managed to get an education, but resents everything about the world of his betters. Much of the play (set in a squalid Midland flat) features his sometimes comic, sometimes cruel diatribes against his wife, his sweet-natured buddy, the social status quo, and everything else that crosses his path. The film version, released in 1959, featured rising star Richard Burton, along with Claire Bloom and an expanded cast of characters. It garnered an X rating from the British censors, and—though nominated for a few British awards—made absolutely no dent on Hollywood.

 I hadn’t realized that the play was filmed again, for television, in 1989. It was helmed by Judi Dench, in her only directorial outing, and its stars included a then-married couple who were starting to make their own impact on theatre and film. In that same year, Branagh had both shot and starred in his stirring rendition of Shakespeare’s Henry V, scooping up his first two Oscar nominations (he won in 2022 for his Belfast screenplay). Thompson, newer to the big screen, would go on to win Oscars for acting (Howards End) and screenwriting (Sense and Sensibility). The Branagh/Thompson marriage, which led to several creative collaborations on stage and screen, ended in 1995, apparently because Branagh had moved on to Helena Bonham-Carter, in a dynamic that had some parallels to Look Back in Anger. But what struck me was that both Branagh (born in 1960) and Thompson (1959) started their lives at a time when Look Back in Anger was galvanizing the art world.

 As Jimmy Porter, Branagh has the real goods. He’s funny; he’s angry; he’s constantly in motion. This production, which began on the British stage, is completely faithful to Osborne’s tiny cast and one-set location. There’s no room for fancy camera work, and everything depends on Branagh firmly holding our attention as he goes off onto his endless rants. And so he does. I’d like to say that his working-class roots, as seen in the autobiographical Belfast, make his a Jimmy Porter we believe through and through.

 Thompson, as the woebegone Alison, has the harder job, tamping down her vibrant personality to persuade us that she’s willing to remain Jimmy’s doormat. But the toughest role belongs to Helena Charles (Siobhan Redmond), the posh friend of Alison’s who shows up at midpoint and makes some bewildering choices. Still, this remains a mesmerizing production.


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