The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

4/5

UK; Tony Richardson


All Audiences


Colin (Tom Courtenay), a sullen, rebellious and disillusioned youth, purges a sentence at a boys’ reformatory for a petty theft. The silent boy is soon remarked by the borstal governor (Michael Redgrave), a former runner himself, for his racing endurance. Through his prowess as a long distance runner, he raises the ranks of the institution, escaping for brief moments of liberty the unforgiving routine of the reformatory. The day of the inter-school race, when he is offered the chance to redeem himself and start all over again in athletics, Colin must make a choice.    

The British cinematic renewal of the 1960s was, in reference to the French New Wave, baptized the English New Wave. Richardson’s controversial effort (accused of communist side-taking, he was refused the right to shoot in an actual borstal) is a bold and riveting artistic manifesto of the new direction. Most exegeses of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner usually fall prey to the striking and facile comparison with The 400 Blows, another emblematic tale of working-class juvenile rebellion. Both Colin and Antoine, at first sight reckless youths lost in an overcivilized jungle, possess an elaborate life philosophy of defiance and nihilism. If they are beyond the traditional meaning of “redemption” it is because they don’t only reject – and are rejected – by society, they also despise it at heart.  

After the setting of the scene in the austere reformatory, in which the struggle for power is merciless among the inmates, the film is allowed to meander. Through a series of flashbacks, Colin’s background and his life preceding his arrest is established with vivid, energetic strokes. Growing up in the industrial suburbs of a provincial town, with an ailing father dying slowly (“from a nameless capitalist disease” sarcastically observed one critic), Colin is at first sight a Dickensian cliché. But his rebellion, his nihilism and arrogance make him rather an anti-Dickensian, existentialist hero, a man whose only ambition is to manage to live his life while steering clear of any such things as ambition or ideals. He is not devoid of tenderness or humanity, though: in the movie (unlike in Alan Silitoe’s short story on which the film is based) he is given a girlfriend, on which all the boy’s repressed tenderness and love will focus. Humming with humanity and warmth, these scenes are, along with the anti-climatic final race, the best scenes of the film. 

Though the narrative has some overly familiar beats, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a must-see, not only as one of the cornerstone of  British New Wave, a movement that managed to be highly original despite the tribute paid to the French New Wave, but also as a piece of gripping, sensible and defiant filmmaking.

 

Long distance runner

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