The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Directed by Tony Richardson
Written by Alan Sillitoe based on his short story
Woodfall Film Productions
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
This was the era of Angry Young Men films in Britain. So far, I have mostly found the alienated youth to be more infuriating than angry. Tony Richardson and Tom Courtney make this protagonist totally understandable.
As the film begins teenager Colin Smith (Courtney) is being taken by van to a juvenile detention facility or “Borstal”. Throughout the film we will get glimpses of his life before incarceration via episodic flashbacks. The old-school governor of this institution (Michael Redgrave) believes that athletics can channel the boys’ anger into a constructive outlet and give the athletes a sense of pride. Newer staff, with a bent toward psychology, think that life might be more complicated than that. At any rate, the governor has finally gotten a local public (read private) school to agree to participate in a Sports Day with his boys. He is determined that they will take the Challenge Cup in cross-country running.
Witnessing Colin’s performance in a friendly soccer game convinces the governor that he has found his runner. Soon Colin is the governor’s blue-eyed boy and has many special privileges. In his short life, Colin as never been in such a position. In fact, the whole thing seems surreal to him as do all his encounters with authority figures and glimpses of middle and upper class life.
Colin comes from a chaotic working class home ruled by a stubborn father and a venal mother. The father dies a painful death, made more painful by his refusal to go to the hospital or take pain medicine. The minute the body is cold the mother collects 500 pounds insurance money and throws it away on small luxury items and her new boyfriend. Colin, already a petty thief, teams up with a friend to “borrow a car” from which they pick up girls. Later, they take the till from an unattended bakery, landing Colin in his current predicament. Will Colin take a chance to improve himself or stay true to his origins?
This film works so well because Richardson makes us share Colin’s frustration. The staff of the Borstal, presenters on television, etc. are so disconnected from the problems of someone like Colin as to seem almost like folks from another planet. It also helps that Courtney has the sensitivity to show us Colin’s humanity and struggle to find his way in a hard world. He knows something is wrong somewhere but has no idea how to fix it. The photography has a semi-documentary quality while remaining beautiful and the music supports the story well. Very highly recommended,
This was Courtney’s first film.