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True Brit 

Wednesday, Mar 28 2001
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Photo by Photofest

“British New Wave” — now there’s a term that badly needs redefining. Just how “British” was the kitchen-sink boom of the late 1950s and early ’60s — and just how “new”? The Nuart’s selection of gritty, working-class dramas summarizes the main clichés of the genre, which was spearheaded by Oxbridge-educated directors and young working-class actors and writers from the industrial North. Most of the directors — Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson — had passed through the Royal Court Theater in the wake of John Osborne’s landmark 1956 drama Look Back in Anger. The actors they favored — Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Alan Bates — spoke in the rough, vital accents of their industrial hometowns. The novelists and dramatists sprang up in the wake of John Braine’s Room at the Top and included Stan Barstow (A Kind of Loving), Alan Sillitoe (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey) and David Storey (This Sporting Life).

Certainly the subject matter was new to British movies: unwed pregnancies (A Taste of Honey, The L-Shaped Room), reformatories (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), poverty (Saturday Night), crippling social deference, petty crime, abortion, homosexuality, racism, the soullessness of newfound affluence (Nothing but the Best), frustrated dreams of leaving (Billy Liar), the first fumblings of sexuality (all of them). Despite the seeming novelty of the themes, however, most of the artistic innovations in the films themselves — the rawness, the working-class milieus — had already taken place in the novels and stage plays from which the New Wave films had been adapted, with little of the sustained cinematic energy and inventiveness found in contemporary European films like Breathless and L’Avventura. And, as to “British,” this was primarily an English affair (“English — and southern English at that,” to quote Anderson’s demolition of the kind of middle-class, middlebrow cinema he sought to overthrow), with nary a Scottish, Irish or Welsh film to be seen.

The Nuart series summarizes all of this with five movies, somewhat randomly chosen perhaps, that cover most of the bases and also underscore the movement’s flaws. Richardson’s A Taste of Honey and Long Distance Runner are often patronizing and self-important (Courtenay’s socialist rants in Runner undermine the sense of an inarticulate antihero), and have little cinematic flair. John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar, the best of this selection, is the only one that both transcends its genre and aspires to something more universal, with Billy’s failure to get on the train to London (and to the ’60s) with Julie Christie being one of the great tragic moments in British cinema. Bryan Forbes’ wildly dated The L-Shaped Room has Leslie Caron pregnant in a Notting Hill boarding house teeming with period stereotypes (including the great lost actor Tom Bell, who ruined his career by getting drunk at the 1964 BAFTA Awards and calling Prince Philip a cunt). And Georgy Girl, despite its faintly reactionary sexual politics, has a standout performance from Charlotte Rampling (Christie’s dead-eyed evil twin) as — there are no other words for it — a selfish, rotten, heartless bitch.

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Looking back, one wonders at how parochial, socially hidebound and sexually repressed Britain must have been before Profumo and the Pill. Now that the social conventions and censorship laws that once made these movies seem shocking have evaporated, they are mainly interesting as exercises in social anthropology — as paintings of a vanished English landscape, and as attempts to create a poetic realism that united Britain’s feature industry with the nation’s immensely rich documentary tradition. To be sure, the Nuart series is British Kitchen-Sink Realism 101, but it’s a good introduction to the great and flexible body of politically aware, realist filmmaking that has since given us Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke, along with newcomers like Ratcatcher’s Lynne Ramsey.

BRITISH NEW WAVE OF THE SIXTIES | BILLY LIAR, A TASTE OF HONEY, THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER, GEORGY GIRL and THE L-SHAPED ROOM | Through Thursday, April 5 | At the Nuart

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