Directed by Lindsay Anderson
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 134 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: January 22, 2008
Review Date: January 19, 2008
A feature film directed by a man who had never directed a feature film before, a producer who had never produced a feature film before, and a screenwriter who had never written a screenplay before? Amazing that such a project got made at all; that it turned out to be a near-masterpiece is astounding. Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life is one of the most haunting examples of the “angry young man” school of British cinema in the 1960s (sometimes called the “British New Wave“), and I believe it’s the best one. A gripping story told uniquely with two leading performances of such searing magnificence that they’re hard to forget, This Sporting Life finally gets a presentation on home video that it richly deserves.
Frank Machin (Richard Harris), a star rugby player who has his front teeth knocked out during a match, reflects on how he got to this moment in his life during an agonizing few days that mark a turning point for him in more ways than one. We see him as a coal miner fairly bursting with desire to escape that dead-end existence. He lodges with an attractive widow Mrs. Hammond (Rachel Roberts) who has two lovely children. He loves her and dotes on her kids, but she can’t give herself over to him, still grieving for her husband who’s only been gone a few months. Frank gets a tryout for the City Club’s rugby team and so impresses one owner that he gets signed on his terms. Alas, with victory come the spoils, the attention, and the ego, yet it doesn’t get him any farther with Mrs. Hammond, and the picture turns into a coruscating study of embittered frustration, having it all and yet having nothing.
Peter Storey’s screenplay is a miracle of construction (based on his own novel). The flashbacks and returns to present time are jarring enough (and frequent enough) to keep us on edge and constantly alert to get time lines straight in our heads. Lindsay Anderson directs the entire story in tones of such melancholy and morose spirits that even triumphs have a sour taste. The intensity of the rugby matches neatly parallels Frank’s intensity in everything he does, never to more embarrassing effect than an evening out with Mrs. Hammond in a swanky restaurant that’s one of the most uncomfortable (but brilliantly directed) sequences in film history.
The film made Richard Harris a star, earning him his first Oscar nomination for the angry, combative man who sees all life as a contest with everyone, even friends, as potential opponents. Rachel Roberts, also earning a well deserved Oscar nomination, makes a tragic, eternally sympathetic Mrs. Hammond. Every one of their scenes together crackles with a combination of sexual energy and internal conflict which never lets up throughout the entire running time of the film.
Mention should also be made of sterling work done in the movie by a host of stalwart British character actors. Alan Badel plays Weaver, the team owner who first supports Frank and later turns against him once his wife (Vanda Godsell) starts circling him like a shark. William Hartnell is the on-the-make team scout Johnson, a tragic figure who rather fades too readily into the background later in the film. Colin Blakely and Jack Watson play team members who get cast out of the limelight once Frank becomes the team’s star while Arthur Lowe is a memorable Slomer, the team owner who resists Frank at first but who later becomes his only champion.
It's an unforgettably brutal, frank, and somber look at people striving desperately for happiness and accomplishment and never sensing that they're getting anywhere.
The film’s 1.66:1 original theatrical aspect ratio is delivered in a high quality anamorphic transfer. The black and white images are sharp with nice fine object detail and good grayscale. Blacks aren’t as deep as on other films of the era (say, The Innocents), but shadow detail is still more than adequate. There are a few white scratches that occur off and on, but there has obviously been a great deal of clean-up done on the image (if the very scratched and speckled theatrical trailer is any indication) as it is for the most part exceptionally clean. The film has been divided into 23 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 track is a good, solid mono track lacking hiss, cracks, pops, crackle or any other age related artifacts. Dynamic range is obviously limited and yet the film’s soundtrack seems somehow very appropriate for the northern England 1960s setting of the story.
The audio commentary is headed by film writer Paul Ryan with intercut comments by novelist/screenwriter David Storey, the last of the film’s primary participants still living. It’s a track chock full of information and opinion. Storey’s rather leaden monotone takes some getting used to, but he has so much information to impart that it’s well worth getting used to his speech cadence.
The theatrical trailer for the film is presented in anamorphic widescreen and runs 2½ minutes. One look at it, and it’s clear how much restoration went into making the feature film look so superb in comparison to this scratch and dirt-laden trailer.
Disc two holds the majority of the special features. It begins with a 2004 Scottish TV documentary on his life entitled Lindsay Anderson: Lucky Man? Filmed ten years after his death, the film features comments from many who worked with him on film and stage including Helen Mirren, Malcolm McDowell, Brian Cox, Richard Harris, as well as friends Gavin Lambert and Martin Scorsese. This 29-minute featurette is in anamorphic video.
Lindsay Anderson’s first film Meet the Pioneers is presented on the disc. This 1948 industrial short on the construction and installation of conveyor belts by the Richard Sutcliffe Company for use in coal mining, yarn packing, and limestone quarrying runs 33 minutes and is obviously presented in a very rough looking 4:3 transfer.
Lois Sutcliffe Smith, who co-produced Meet the Pioneers and was a lifelong friend of Lindsay Anderson’s, has an 18-minute interview presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Wakefield Express is Anderson’s 1952 documentary about the gathering of news and the publication of the weekly newspaper in the Wakefield area of northern England which ironically formed the setting for This Sporting Life. This is another 4:3 documentary looking much the worse for wear but much more interesting than Meet the Pioneers. It runs 32 minutes.
Is That All There Is? is Anderson’s final film, an autobiographical “day-in-the-life-of” documentary made in 1993 for the BBC. It's in 4:3 and runs 51 minutes and gives us a good account of his personality, his interests, and his friends and relatives.
The enclosed 33-page booklet contains film portraits and stills, a critique of the film by film professor Neil Sinyard, and an article on his work on the movie penned by Anderson, large chunks of which turn up in the audio commentary comments of Paul Ryan.
In one of Criterion’s finest efforts, a real classic of the British cinema is now represented in its best light with This Sporting Life. It goes without saying that the movie and thus this set is highly recommended.
[PG]This Sporting Life[/PG]