10 Essential British New Wave Films

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Grim working-class life, angry young men, kitchen-sink realism, and gritty locations filled with colorful characters — these are just a few ways to describe the films of the British New Wave. This unforgettable chapter in film history emerged in the early 1960s and brought British cinema to the forefront. Through April 6, New York City’s Film Forum celebrates the British New Wave with a fantastic series. From programmer Bruce Goldstein:

As the 1950s ended, British cinema exploded with new energy, as directors like Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson and John Schlesinger tackled groundbreaking material from young new writers (among them John Osborne, Shelagh Delaney, and Harold Pinter – fresh from revolutionizing the stage), creating a socially conscious, aggressively working class cinema, trampling taboos by depicting England’s angry and alienated youth, and treating sexual content frankly. And they had the interpreters they needed in a tidal wave of powerful young actors like Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Rita Tushingham, Julie Christie, Alan Bates, et al. As the 60s progressed, social realism gave way to more escapist fare, Britain’s angry young men evolving into the fashionably disillusioned hedonists of Swinging London.

We’ve highlighted some of the essentials from his time period, most of which are screening at Film Forum.

Look Back in Anger

Tony Richardson, a key figure of the British New Wave movement, directs his “angry young man” adaptation of John Osborne’s influential play of the same name, starring Richard Burton. From Film School Rejects: “Look Back in Anger is a film about a whole generation, but of timeless value, as intense and uncompromising with the past as its title clearly suggests. As intense and uncompromising with its characters as the past they desperately try to overcome.”

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Tony Richardson produced this Karel Reisz drama about a factory worker playboy. From BBC:

Following defiant factory worker Arthur Seaton [Albert Finney], “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” offers a terrifying glimpse into an age where work, booze, and death were all that Britain’s young men had to look forward to. Set in Nottingham at the end of the 50s, “Saturday Night…” offered newcomer Finney the chance to really show what he could do on-screen. The result is a smouldering, poison pen letter of a film in which Finney’s working class hero – a rarity in the stuffy days of postwar British cinema – battles the system with a near-religious fervour. “What I want is a good time, the rest is all propaganda,” is Seaton’s mantra, but in the end, he realizes he’s fighting a losing battle as an affair with his best friend’s wife (Roberts) ends badly, and his aggressive attitude alienates him from everyone.

Kes

Ken Loach’s Kes, based on the 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines, was a commercial failure in the United States, which critic Roger Ebert blamed on the film’s heavy Yorkshire accents. But Ebert considered this story of an abused boy one of the director’s finest. From Roger Ebert:

“Kes” is Loach at his best. He shot it on a very low budget, on location, using most local nonprofessionals as his leads. His story is about a boy who’s caught in England’s class-biased educational system. He reaches school-leaving age and decides to leave, but doesn’t have anything else he much cares about. He’s the butt of jokes and hostility at home (where his older brother rules), and inarticulate with his contemporaries.

This Sporting Life

BFI offers more on the 1963 Lindsay Anderson film about a footballer (written by a former professional rugby league footballer):

This Sporting Life (1963) is the film which signalled the end of the British ‘new wave’. While its methods and style remained influential, its box office failure meant that producers were unwilling to invest their money in more gritty, realist topics. It was felt that audiences wanted escapism again. It’s easy to see why This Sporting Life wasn’t a commercial success. Unlike the short and punchy earlier new wave films, it is over two hours long. Where Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (d. Karel Reisz, 1960) or A Taste of Honey (d. Tony Richardson, 1961) deal with difficult issues and paint a gritty picture of England they do also offer some hope, some belief that the spirit can triumph. By contrast, This Sporting Life is utterly, relentlessly bleak. This is not to say that the film is in any way a failure. Indeed after Saturday Night and Sunday Morning it is probably the most regarded new wave film with current critics. It is perhaps the most unflinching look at the misery of the human condition that British film culture has ever contrived. At times the pace, expressionistic aesthetic and obsession with emotional trauma seem more like the Swedish films of Ingmar Bergman than anything to do with British social realism.

Sons and Lovers

Director Jack Cardiff received the 1960 Oscar Nomination as Best Director for his adaptation of the D. H. Lawrence 1913 novel of the same name, starring Donald Pleasence. From the New York Times:

“Sons and Lovers” is sensitively felt and photographed in Jerry Wald’s British-made film version of it, which opened yesterday at the Victoria and Beekman Theatres. The theme of the classic English novel is faithfully preserved: joy and sorrow and strange frustration grow out of the strong attachment of mother and son. An excellent cast of British actors (and one American) play it well. And Jack Cardiff, camera man turned director, has filled it with picture poetry. The drabness of a north-of-England coal town, the warmth of a poor coal miner’s home, the bleakness of the wintry English country near Eastwood, where Lawrence was born—all are caught and concentrated in this film, appropriately black-and-white, which puts forth the generalized Lawrence story in a stunning pictorial style.

Georgy Girl

Set in swinging London, Georgy Girl won Lynn Redgrave the 1967 Best Actress Academy Award nomination. She plays the “homely but vivacious young woman [who] dodges the amorous attentions of her father’s middle-aged employer while striving to capture some of the glamorous life of her swinging London roommate.” From Variety:

The role of a gawky ungainly plain Jane [in this adaptation of the novel by Margaret Forster] is a natural for Lynn Redgrave’s talents, and she frequently overwhelms her costars by sheer force of personality. . . . Redgrave has a pushover of a part, and never misses a trick to get that extra yock, whether it’s her first passionate encounter with Alan Bates or her fielding of Mason’s amorous overtures.

A Kind of Loving

John Schlesinger’s kitchen-sink drama won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival that year. From Eye for Film:

One of the most important films of the British New Wave, A Kind Of Loving owes much to the Angry Young Men of theatre. It has rarely been grimmer up north than in John Schlesinger’s tale of social obligation, shame and self-destruction – yet by uncovering the passions beneath these frustrations he turns life’s bit part players into characters in their own right. This is a story with all the components of high drama played out in a world onto which British cinema had hitherto rarely deigned to turn its gaze. The film’s ostensible hero, Vic (Alan Bates) is a young man living with his parents and younger brother, working in a local firm, trying to get on in life – yet he’s at that age when it’s hard to pin down any certain future path, and he’s tempted to travel, to see beyond the chimney-framed horizons.

Also, please note that Film Forum will be doing a long-run of a restoration of A Kind of Loving from April 7 to 13.

Tiger Bay

From BFI on the film hat won Hayley Mills a Most Promising Newcomer to Film BAFTA in 1960:

Tiger Bay (d. J. Lee Thompson, 1959) is more romantic and dramatic than realistic, more traditional than the uncompromising, radical departure of the films of the British New Wave. It is in some ways a transition: both traditional and modern, but not exactly social realism. It was ahead of its time in showing aspects of life not usually displayed in film in the 1950s, but limits these insights to brief glimpses. Nonetheless, the film is occasionally powerful in dealing with contemporary issues, notably sexual equality. In the brief time before she is murdered, Anya (Yvonne Mitchell) is inspiringly feminist; with some surprisingly modern lines: “Just because you helped me once, is that a life sentence? I’m not an animal for a little boy to keep in a cage; I’m a woman, a woman with a heart and a body which is my own to give how I like, when I like.”

Darling

A model bored by married life quits commitment and lives the decadent life in swinging London. From critic Scott Tobias:

Always a sophisticated beauty, Julie Christie was at the height of her powers in 1965’s Darling, every bit the glowing Pandora that separates husbands from families, lures playboys and princes, and lights up advertisements and gossip rags. More than just a pretty face, she’s also a keen and substantive screen presence, which explains why she not only survived the film’s haughty contempt for her character, but also went on to win the Oscar for Best Actress. Without Christie’s star power, would people still remember Darling as a sophisticated social satire about empty ambition, decaying mores, and the cult of celebrity? Or, more likely, would they spot the worms populating its core? As directed by the late John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy) and written by Oscar-winner Frederic Raphael (Eyes Wide Shut), the film now seems like a Mod-era relic, a glib and reactionary white elephant that feigns hipness in order to advance its own prudish moral agenda. The opening-credits sequence, in which a billboard of Christie’s glamorous face is pasted over emaciated Africans in a “World Relief” banner, crudely sets the tone: Why should anyone care about pretty socialites when there are people starving in the world? Pretty and blank, models make easy placards for an artist’s message, but Schlesinger and Raphael get more than they bargained for with Christie, who’s painted as a dead-eyed villain, but emerges as the film’s lone sympathetic character.

The L-Shaped Room

Bryan Forbes’ 1962 drama centers on a young, pregnant, unmarried French woman who winds up in a London boarding house and falls in love with one of the residents and her strange, new life — but struggles with making decisions for her future. From BFI:

The L-Shaped Room (1962) has a strange position within the British ‘new wave’. It feels like half a new wave film – a mid-point between the innovation of the Woodfall Films and the mainstream of the British film industry. The frankness about sex and the sympathetic treatment of outsiders – whether they be unmarried mothers, lesbian or black – and the largely natural and non-judgmental handling of their problems seem part of the movement, but the narrative style and direction are more conventional. Director Bryan Forbes was, and still is, very much part of the British film industry establishment. As an actor he was a mainstay of war films and thrillers in the 1950s. As a director with Whistle Down the Wind (1961) and then this film, he set down a more romantic, wistful type of realism than that of Tony Richardson or Lindsay Anderson. What The L-Shaped Room conveys best is a feeling for Englishness, which is affectionate but not uncritical.