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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Review: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

* * * 1/2

Director: Karel Reisz
Starring: Albert Finney, Rachel Roberts, Shirley Anne Field

“Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not,” Arthur tells us and, in doing so, tells us just about everything we need to know about him. He’s your typical restless young man, determined not to be pinned down by anything – not a job, not a woman, not his family. The last thing he wants is to end up like the worn-out men he sees around him, whom he thinks are dead from the neck up. In Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, director Karel Reisz perfectly evokes not only this character but also his milieu, right down to the minute details, offering a brilliant depiction of character and place.

Albert Finney stars as Arthur, a young factory worker who wants more out of life, though he can’t say what, exactly, is lacking; he’s just generally dissatisfied with his lot. He’s carrying on an affair with Brenda (Rachel Roberts), the wife of one of his co-workers, but also strikes up a relationship with Doreen (Shirley Anne Field), a girl he meets in a pub. Life plods along for him – he works, he juggles his romantic entanglements, he carries on a war of sorts with one of his neighbours – and then he learns that Brenda is pregnant and suddenly life seems a lot more serious to this guy who once swore he’d never settle down.

The really great thing about this movie is that the situation isn’t as simple as it might seem. It would be easy to say that Arthur is with Brenda simply because she sleeps with him, whereas Doreen is a “nice” girl who keeps him at arm’s length, but it’s more complicated than that. He obviously has some affection for Brenda that goes beyond the fact that she’ll have sex with him without demanding a commitment – there are moments when I think a good argument could be made that he genuinely likes her more than Doreen. That being said, he has real affection for Doreen, too, with whom he has more in common, although she doesn’t quite understand him the way that Brenda does. In the end – and after several failed attempts to induce a miscarriage – Brenda ends things with Arthur and decides to have the baby with her husband, while Arthur becomes engaged to Doreen. The film ends on a distinctly bittersweet note as Doreen describes the future she has planned for herself and Arthur, a future which sounds exactly like all those things Arthur has been fighting to avoid. His final words in response to all this suggest defiance and surrender in equal measure, and leave little doubt as to whether these two will have a happy, satisfied life together.

The film takes a lot of care in depicting its setting – the working class neighbourhood where Arthur lives seems neither romanticized nor exaggerated to seem worse than it actually is. Arthur lives with his parents in a tiny flat where all the neighbours know his business, but in a general way they’re all content. In the final analysis, it's difficult to begrudge Arthur his various adventures because you know that regardless of how hard he fights against it, he’s going to end up trapped in the same life his parents are living, probably with a disaffected, vaguely angry son of his own one day. In a lot of ways this is a sad movie because it suggests the futility of escape, but the tone created and maintained throughout the story never allows you to feel sorry for the characters. This isn't meant to be a tragedy, but a depiction of utter ordinariness.

In keeping with that theme, the direction by Reisz is very simple and restrained. Nothing is embelished by directorial tricks because nothing needs to be. The story and the characters speak clearly for themselves. The performance by Finney is really engaging and he seems to carry the film on his shoulders with ease. Neither he nor the film itself ever strikes a false note.

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