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Daydream Believer: John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (1963) – Blu-ray review

April 29, 2013 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Schlesinger’s masterpiece was a key formative influence… and, amazingly, it continues to be even now. The dream is more complex, but still one to cherish.

Billy Liar
(John Schlesinger, 1963)

Everybody has cherished films that helped to define their love of cinema: geeks have Star Wars, gangta rappers have Scarface and everybody else seemingly has The Shawshank Redemption. My own teenage Epiphany came in the form of Billy Liar – an unlikely choice at first glance, but one that was probably inevitable when you look at it closely.

Flashback to the early 1990s. I’d just discovered The Smiths, so imagine my delight to find that John Schlesinger’s film portrayed exactly the grubby/glamorous England celebrated in Morrissey’s lyrics – sometimes explicitly referencing Billy Liar. Another of my then-favourite bands, Ride had not long released a song – Twisterella – which was named after (and includes elements of) the one Billy writes in the film. And then there were my own affinities to the title character: a sensitive wannabe writer who yearns to get away from ‘grim oop North’ Britain. As if to make it all the more personal, the first place namedropped in the opening sequence is my own home town of Derby.

So the release of Billy Liar onto Blu-ray isn’t merely a chance to reflect on its 50th anniversary, but also my own relationship with the film. I’m delighted to say it’s still as fresh, funny and quietly heartbreaking as it was when I first saw it… but, if anything, the passage of time (my own, as much as Britain’s) have given it greater resonance and ambiguity.

Few films capture a world in flux, but Schlesinger’s prescient portrait of the nascent Swinging Sixties is rife with social and cinematic ironies. This is a world with one foot still in the Second World War, but the other inching cautiously into modernism: a literal building site where the past is being bulldozed but the hero remains so uncertain about the future he’s hoarding all of the calendars. The threat of domesticity and conformity clash with the promise of sex and rebellion, and it could go either way – the biggest shock nowadays is noticing how Billy’s square, middle-aged boss frequents the same dance hall as the cool kids, the last gasp of a shared heritage before the subcultures take over.

Schlesinger captures this in a freewheeling style that marries the scruffy realism of Kitchen Sink peers like Saturday Night And Sunday Morning with the ‘anything goes’ verve of the French New Wave, as Billy imagines machine-gunning his parents and retreats into a fantasy life as the dictator of Ambrosia. For British cinema, this was probably the most daring experimentation with form seen since Michael Powell’s heyday, and in retrospect it opened the floodgates for the more irreverent style perfected in A Hard Day’s Night, If… and Monty Python. Meanwhile, the director signals his statement of intent by shooting in Cinemascope – hinting at his future career in Hollywood – and introduces Julie Christie in an intoxicating, laissez-faire montage that gives Britain a homegrown equivalent to Jeanne Moreau.

Christie is the obvious breakout star, but Schlesinger had an eye for heroes of future Britain, with 1970s sitcom legends Leonard Rossiter and Rodney Bewes catching the eye in supporting roles. And then, of course, there is Tom Courtenay, already on the public’s radar thanks to The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, but here achieving the role of his lifetime.

And yet… let’s not overstate the film as some kind of avant-garde, era-defining masterpiece.There’s still a slightly fussy, restrained mood to proceedings, a very British reserve prevents the film from really going for it – yet it’s precisely that tension that makes it resonate so much with me. If it was perfect, it wouldn’t capture the Quixotic appeal of Billy’s rebellion, the Wildean glamour of a film that is lying in the gutter but looking up at the stars. Maybe you need to be British to really get it; it’s probably not one for the global intelligentsia who determine the canon of art-house classics. But, even fifty years on, its study in parochial repression, and the banal excuses by which this country underachieves, are stingingly accurate.

Courtenay nails the complexity in Billy: cheeky chappie or damaged goods? He’s immensely likeable, but too prissy to convince as a counter-cultural icon, and Courtenay isn’t afraid to create a hero who brings out the worst traits of British society, a cauldron of class envy, entitlement, dodgy entrepreneurism and self-delusion that makes him behave in uncomfortably selfish and cowardly ways. In many ways, he’s a prototype for sitcom devils from Reginald Perrin (there’s the Rossiter connection…) to David Brent, but Courtenay still makes him raffish and noble in the sad sincerity with which he cleaves to dreams that he hasn’t the stomach to actually chase after.

And then – SPOILER WARNING – there’s that ending! Years ago, I found the film’s climax so distressing I would literally yell at the character not to be so stupid. Nowadays, I’m not so sure whether it’s a clear-cut defeat of personality – Billy’s decision to stay at home is as poignant as it is pathetic, and maybe even it’ll do him some good to support his parents in their grief. It’s always a sign of a film’s greatness when it can grow with you and Billy Liar offers complexities now that weren’t apparent to my younger self. Ironically, in real life I actually ‘got on the train’ and moved to London… but then I came back to the once-hated home town and now I’m the provincial parent whose kids might one day become Billies. That’s an interesting position to be in, but one which the film is strong enough to accommodate. I might have changed, but Billy Liar is still worth cherishing.

Billy Liar is released on Blu-ray on Monday 6th May.

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