Sunday 23 January 2011

Look Back in Anger (1989)

There's something perversely compelling but ultimately tiresome about Look Back In Anger, the classic "kitchen sink drama" about an Angry Young Man. In fact, the protagonist's name, Jimmy Porter, has become something of a shorthand for "the Angry Young Man" - or, if you're like the PPCC, "self-important misogynistic asshole".

What's amazing about Look Back in Anger is how autobiographical it purportedly is. John Osborne, the playwright, was also notoriously horrible to his loved ones - after repeatedly insulting her, he threw his teenage daughter out of the house and never spoke to her again. Like Jimmy Porter, the cruelty of his language was infamous. And what's amazing is that someone so, well, self-involved and dick-ish, could have been able to write anything remotely three-dimensional at all. It's a wonder he managed to create characters other than Jimmy Porter - especially Jimmy's long-suffering wife, Alison, and friend, Cliff.

Anyway! Jimmy Porter (Kenneth Branagh) is a working class candy shop owner somewhere in an anonymous English town. He seethes at the unfairness of it all, particularly classism and, uh, the existence of women. His hatred for these two things he takes out with relish on Alison (Emma Thompson), his passive, upper class-slumming wife. A diarrheic talker, Jimmy hates the complacency, the conformism, the hypocrisy of modern English everything. He rails and rails… and rails… and rails some more, for good measure. His (only remaining?) friend, the adorable puppy-like Cliff (Gerard Horan), tries to keep the peace between Jimmy and Alison. Eventually, Alison's childhood friend, the righteous and churchy Helena (Siobhan Redmond), comes to visit and attempts to bark back at Jimmy.

All of this building tension - a tension that goes from being pleasantly coiled to excruciatingly awful to watch - is punctuated by rare moments of sweet, almost needy, affection: when they're not screaming at each other, Jimmy and Alison cuddle and coo about being a "bear and a squirrel", Alison and Cliff cuddle and coo ("My lovely!" Cliff always exclaims), and Jimmy and Cliff wrestle and rough-house like schoolboys. It's a strange, compelling roller coaster of ups and… well, not so much downs, as when the roller coaster breaks off the tracks and goes flying away.

Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson are always reliably good in theater-driven stuff. Judi Dench directs, but it's a limited, anemic direction, still speaking theater language when it should be speaking movie.

The play itself has been lauded for bringing realism (and, we guess, nihilism and rebellion) to the English stage back in the 50s. It is certainly shockingly gritty by even today's standards - again, not so much because of the poverty or unwanted pregnancy stuff, so much as the cruelty of Jimmy and Osborne's relatively sympathetic treatment of it. It's as if Osborne is trying to tell us Jimmy is a prophet, someone who (as the "citation needed" intro of Osborne's wiki tells us) "argued for the cleansing wisdom of bad behavior and bad taste, and combined unsparing truthfulness with devastating wit." Now, we have a personal bone to pick with such a philosophy: mostly because we think compassion is the only universal wisdom, and behaving like an asshole isn't so much shaking off the shackles of a hypocritical, stifling society, as it is, well, being an asshole.

If we may go a bit Tiger Beatdown on Osborne and Jimmy for a moment, as well, we've always heard this ultra-individualistic, pessimistic philosophy proselytized by, well, angry young men. Angry, desperate egotism and self-pity of this sort, when coupled with disenfranchised young white men (as Jimmy and Osborne are), always makes us think of (1) misogyny! and (2) racism! And, indeed, you can read Look Back in Anger as a post-colonial play: Jimmy as a broken-down, post-imperial UK, with nothing else to conquer, wallowing in ennui and feelings of low self-worth. (Hey, Laurence Olivier, who was all about injecting patriotism into theater, thought Look Back in Anger was an offense to his "sense of patriotism and theatre".) In that respect, as a self-aware sympathetic satire of wounded, post-imperial British pride, Look Back in Anger is almost acceptable - but we're wary of giving Osborne too much self-reflective credit, especially since he was kinda right-wing and it smells throughout that he agrees with Jimmy. He certainly seems to think Jimmy's categorical hate of anyone upper class or female (or, worse, upper class and female!) is righteous and true. And he wasn't totally self-aware: as demonstrated in the completely ridiculous moment when another character, the father-in-law, listens to Alison describing Jimmy's various abuses and then compliments Jimmy on his "way with words" (?!). Why doesn't he just say, "Good heavens, that Jimmy fellow should become a playwright! He could revolutionize the stage with his witticisms!" Dude, he put a sockpuppet in his own play. What a troll...

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