[Film Review] This Sporting Life (1963)

This Sporting Life poster

Title: This Sporting Life
Year: 1963
Country: UK
Language: English
Genre: Drama, Sport
Director: Lindsay Anderson
Writer: David Storey
based on his novel
Music: Roberto Gerhard
Cinematography: Denys N. Coop
Richard Harris
Rachel Roberts
Alan Badel
Arthur Lowe
William Hartnell
Colin Blakely
Jack Watson
Vanda Godsell
Anne Cunningham
Leonard Rossiter
Edward Fox
George Sewell
Glenda Jackson
Rating: 8.2/10

This Sporting Life 1963

British New Wave auteur Lindsay Anderson’s feature debut, a “kitchen sink” drama of the first order, stars Harris as Frank Machin, an aggressive coal-miner-turned-rugby-player in Wakefield, who lodges in with a widow Ms. Margaret Hammond (Roberts) and her two young children. He is a rough diamond type, an indomitable “ape” on the field, but constantly perturbed by dissatisfaction and loneliness, he is pining for being wanted, especially by Margaret, who always gives him cold shoulder over his benevolent advances.

The film starts with intimate close-ups of the men-to-men action during an ongoing game, which echoes with its bleak ending, the same Frank in the field, doing the only thing he is really good at, to continue his life. After a sucker punch knocks him out in cold, he is taken to a dentist to fix his messed-up teeth, under the influence of anaesthetic, the narrative begins to alternate between flashbacks and the current time-frame, a tactic sometimes can cause unnecessary confusion, for instance, I cannot ascertain the sequence where he punches a fellow player Len (Watson) happens in the flashback or after the dentist, also why does he do that?

Soon we will know, Frank gets his start with the help of ‘Dad’ Johnson (Hartnell), an elderly scout for the local rugby league club owner Gerald Weaver (Badel), Anderson subtly implies there is a latent homoeroticism among the rugby business, not just the graphic roughhousing among macho and burly players, also from ‘Dad’, whom Margaret observe from their first meeting that his ogling look at Frank means something more than just a friend; and the perpetually suave Mr. Weaver, once impulsively reveals his intention with a seemingly casual pinch on Frank’s thigh, which Anderson particularly singles out in intimacy. Although this strand doesn’t pan out because of Frank’s crass manner and erratic behaviour, it certainly validates Anderson’s unorthodox perception.

After all, the main selling point is between Frank and Margaret, Harris and Roberts (then still Ms. Rex Harrison, and who would sadly commit suicide in 1980 at the age of 53) both pull out all the stops to elicit possibly their career-best performances. They are both gravely flawed characters, deep inside Frank is solely a naive and insecure boy wanting love albeit his masculine aggression, and Margaret is a damaged good stranded in a traumatic tragedy and barely sustained by the intention to live, thus, his one-sided courtship in her eyes is merely to objectify her as a kept woman, and she eventually complies, but she doesn’t love him, she is the one who is incapable of love, because as we audience can testify, Frank is not that bad as a person, yes, he is a volatile woman-beater, an insolent jackass, without too much education, but he has the sense of justice, and he is craving for a reciprocal feeling of being wanted. The only happy moment between them is an outing with two kids, Frank can be a good father figure, but Margaret will never let that happen, both are too obstinate to compromise, Frank can easily choose another object, but no, he will not take no as an answer.

Richard Harris superbly brings about Frank’s multifarious personae, he is a blunt force of nature, yet he can also be quietly implosive in haunting close-ups. Like his close friends Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, he is another British thespian to whom Oscar owes a golden statue. Rachel Roberts, incredibly augments tensions and empathy against her around-the-clock sullen facade and dead inside, fairly enough, both are Oscar-nominated.

Anderson showcases his brilliant expertise of shooting scenes with rapid movements and indoors close-ups, the monochromatic palette effectively adds a layer of fatalism to a rather dispiriting melodrama anchored by two powerhouse performances, truly is one of the best of its time.

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