I’ve thought I should see this film for a long time, but something kept putting me off. Maybe I got the wrong impression, maybe I thought it was going to be real serious, hadn’t realized that it’s mostly a comedy. And now it’s fifty years old.
It was directed by John Schlesinger, one of the informal group from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s known as either the “British New Wave,” the “Angry Young Men,” or the “Kitchen sink realists.” The latter because the stories tended to be set in working-class neighborhoods and flats, dealing with grittier subject matter than had been usual before. This group included Lindsay Anderson, Richard Lester, Tony Richardson, and Ken Russell, among others. Their films were things like Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey, Alfie, and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. They were often in B&W, as this one is, and often shot with grainy, documentary-style film. I quite liked that period. Directors were experimenting. Not all of it was angry, as in Richard Lester’s The Knack … and How to Get It, on my Top 25 list.
This is a tour-de-force performance for Tom Courtenay. It was originally a novel, then a play, then a movie, a TV series, and finally, a musical. Whew! Talk about getting mileage out of your work! In the first ten minutes you will be reminded of Thurber’s Walter Mitty, and in fact the author, Keith Waterhouse, admitted to being inspired by that story.
You know that old joke about how to tell if a politician is lying? (His mouth moves.) That’s our Billy. Lying is his default position. He’s a young man, still living at home, working desultorily in a funeral home. He is constantly being sidetracked by Mitty-like fantasies. The first ones are hilarious, but they get less funny as we go along, including him mowing people down with machine guns when they have trapped him in a lie. He is a real pro, able to come up with the most bizarre lies in a split second, not even pausing to catch his breath. But naturally, when you tell so many lies it’s impossible to keep them all straight, and when you tell lies that contradict your other lies, there’s not much you can do when two lied-to parties confront each other.
He’s got three fiancées: A brainless little twit, a brassy bartender, and Julie Christie. And you have to figure that, if Julie Christie is willing to marry you, you must be seriously sick to propose to two other girls.
Finally Billy gets a chance to start living his dreams, with Julie, no less. All he has to do is board a train to London. That’s it. But he gets so frightened that he makes up another lie, about needing to go buy some milk for the trip. Sure, Billy. He lingers until the train pulls out, and then tries to fake it that he’s just a second too late … but she’s been onto him all along. She smiles at him as she passes, and then he sees that she has put his suitcase out on the platform. The poor dude is never going to get out of his dreams. So he slumps toward home, but before he even gets there he’s already editing his life into another triumphal procession through his fantasy country of Ambrosia, where he’s a hero. Very sad, and very true.