Jimmy Porter (Richard Burton) is an angry young man in late fifties London, where the only pleasure he has in life is to play his trumpet in a jazz band on a Saturday night, though his actual job is running a stall at Romford Market, selling sweets. This is an unusual path for a graduate of university to have taken, but more unusual than that is his marriage to Allison (Mary Ure) who hails from an upper-class family who were deeply unimpressed by her choice of husband. Jimmy is painfully aware of this disdain, and it has fuelled his tempestuous relationship with his wife as they argue every day and only occasionally show one another the love that brought about their union...
Arguably the nineteen-sixties in Britain started here, though the fifties were difficult to shake off for that decade's first quarter or so. This was the play that began the British New Wave - there were plenty of these movements across European cinema and theatre, and John Osborne could lay claim to booting down the barriers that prevented the lower classes from having their voices heard in culture, opening the way for a selection of new performers who embraced the opportunities now available to them. The original production was in 1956, but Osborne and his friend and colleague Tony Richardson were keen to expand it into a movie to increase its audience potential.
Nigel Kneale, best known for creating Quatermass on television and adapting a highly controversial TV play of George Orwell's 1984, was recruited to open out the play so that it was not purely confined to one location, and with Oswald Morris on cinematography duties, at least the film was guaranteed to look good. Osborne and Richardson set up their own film company which they named Woodfall with a view to creating a new form of British cinema, one which was labelled kitchen sink drama, not entirely flatteringly either, and soon a new realism had the nation's movies by the throat. This ensured audiences, even those who didn't like the New Wave, expected differently now.
They didn't necessarily want searing, documentary-style authenticity about the way we lived now in every entertainment available to them, but a sense that the media was expanding to take in a variety of styles that would previously have been deigned experimental or box office poison for that matter, was in the air, and those audiences were beginning to embrace them. So where did this leave poor old Look Back in Anger (which you must try not to call Don't Look Back in Anger - thank Oasis for that)? It's true that being a pioneer does mean you are superseded by those which you influenced (or spawned), and it’s equally true that Richard Burton here was overtaken by a new breed of actor like Albert Finney, Alan Bates or Tom Courtenay who were able to capitalise on the fresh, exciting mood in the air of British artistic life.
This had Burton sliding further into dreadful alcoholism and the infamy of the gossip pages, eclipsing his very fine talent with a series of embarrassing movies that paid well and that was about all he had to show for them. To make matters worse, reassessments looked back in disdain at Burton's excellent work here and complained he was too old, too declamatory, for the part, but he makes an impression as Jimmy's rebellion is engulfed by his drab surroundings, his personal disappointments having him lash out at those who could help him, and finally becoming an embarrassment rather than a vital personality you can see flashes of when we have caught up with him. Ure, Osborne's wife at the time, matched him with a more vulnerable approach, and Claire Bloom as Alison's best friend Helena just about sold us on the idea her hatred of Jimmy could turn to love when she sees his own vulnerability at the point of a bereavement. It was all very intense, but yesterday's revolution can be tomorrow’s (class) war stories, though the film was valuable for all sorts of reasons.
[Available as part of the BFI's Woodfall box set on Blu-ray and DVD, which includes these fully restored films: