Thursday, December 29, 2011

This Sporting Life

In keeping with the spirit of the 'kitchen sink' tradition, 'This Sporting Life' is yet another film that I loved. I am generally wary of movies about sport, because the narrative tends to be very mundane and predictable. Lindsay Anderson's 'This Sporting Life' doesn't fit the mold of the average 'feel good' fable of triumph. Not with its unlikely cast and the interleaving of past and present events into the narrative.

Richard Harris (better known to kids and teenagers as the 'original Dumbledore') plays Frank, a young man with humble beginnings who becomes the star player of  a rugby club in Wakefield, Yorkshire. The film opens to Frank passing out after getting bludgeoned on the rugby field. It's Christmas eve, his teeth are broken and he needs a dentist. He is told that his front teeth will have to be pulled out. As he settles into the anesthesia, his subconscious rewinds through a blurry retelling of past events; of his try-outs for the league, of his landlady and of his ambition to be the best .

Frank lives in a rented room which is a part of a larger family home. His landlady, Margaret; a young widow with two little children, is pert, reserved and is in perpetual mourning for her husband. She keeps her husband's old boots by the fireplace as a reminder of her widowhood and Frank loathes the sight of them. It is quite evident that he wants her and the gulf between them seems to widen with every advance he makes. He brings presents for the children, takes the family out for rides in his car, and still sees no hint of approval in her eyes. There is tension between Frank and Margaret; a dreadful mix of longing and denial. They swing between moments of great tenderness and empathy to those of violent resistance and bitterness. Frank turns down the advances of other women. The only woman he will have is the one who won't have him.

Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts turn out wonderful performances. Both had reputations for being intensely passionate people, on and off stage. For this film, some of that passion is repressed. It is repressed to the extent that it shows up unexpectedly after a rare moment of gentle acquiescence. Richard Harris has a bestial quality. One can see it in his eyes and in the twisted features of his face, famously described has being one 'of a thousand Irish navvies'. This quality leaps forth on occasion; the one thing that makes his performance so unpredictable and believable. Rachel Roberts personifies perfection with her performance. She is bitter, anxious, wild and vulnerable at the same time. She resists and yields, she loves and loathes, and a part of her yearns for all that Frank has to give.

The film ends with Frank yielding a deathly blow to a spider crawling up the wall. He is aptly described as 'nothing but an ape on the field'. It is a tag he must endure for as long as he is invincible.

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