10 Dec 2009

This Sporting Life (1963)

The unwritten rule of sports films is that they should never really be about sport. If a director gets too bogged down in the realities of league points, cup games and tactics, the result tends to be cinematic tedium. Raging Bull is about boxing of course; but it’s also about immigrant life in New York, emotional inarticulacy and family breakdown. Therefore, when I say This Sporting Life isn’t really about rugby league that should be taken as a massive compliment.
Set in rural Yorkshire in the 1960s, the film focuses on Frank Machin, a tough, uncompromising young man struggling to eke out a living as a miner and played, in an Oscar-nominated performance, by Richard Harris. The sporting element of the film takes the form of his burgeoning career as a rugby league player, which affords Frank a respectability and near-celebrity which he is completely unaccustomed to.
His inability to adapt and shake his working-class roots and his brutishness, which brings to mind the afore-mentioned Jake La Motta, sets him on a collision course with the chairmen and administrators of his game. But to keep to the cinematic creed, the sport alone cannot be enough. On top of this, Frank brings a similar bluntness to his attempts to seduce his repressed, widowed landlady, played by Rachel Roberts.

The film also sits at the forefront of the 1960s British school of social-realism or ‘kitchen-sink’ dramas, which had such an influence on modern filmmakers like Ken Loach. Life in the North is portrayed as unremittingly grim with little in terms of relief, bar the usual releases of alcohol, sex and sport. Beautifully shot in black and white, the film holds up a mirror to this period in British history in a way that few others have.
Crucial to its success as well is a mesmerising performance from Richard Harris. His character is a man of few words and Harris revels in this, burning up the screen with a quiet intensity which rightly drew comparisons with the acting giants of his time such as Paul Newman and Marlon Brando.

Critically feted on its release, the film may not have slipped from the collective consciousness, but it is certainly deserving of greater recognition than that currently afforded to it. Now lovingly restored to DVD, its place amongst the greatest British and sports films should hopefully be assured.

Alistair Kleebauer

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