This Sporting Life

I am the last person in the world to gush over a “sport” film. With This Sporting Life, however, I might have to change my stance. There are so many dramatic twists and turns that despite the rather nagging presence of athleticism, there is no way this could be fairly labeled simply a “sports” film.

Director Lindsay Anderson’s magnificent 1963 offering (which is being given a new lease on life thanks to Criterion) may hide behind the guise of a “sports” film, but here the activities on the field take a back seat to the dramatic clinches and the illumination of working class England in the ’60s. Although they remain intrinsic to the plot and the characters, the athletic metaphors never get bogged down with sentimentality or cliché.

This visceral film functions more as a sterling example of the “British Kitchen Sink Realism” movement, rather than an ordinary sports flick. But what exactly constitutes a “British Kitchen Sink” drama?

During the late ’50s, the genre reared its head, cameras pointed firmly away from London and the other big cities of Europe. Now, rural, small town England was proudly on display. The working class anti-hero was often represented in the lead roles of these films. For a perfect example of the influence the genre has had on film, just check out this year’s stunning homage, Anton Corbijn’s Ian Curtis bio, Control.

Characterized by bloody, vibrant, and often violent overtones, the Kitchen Sink picture used plain, everyday dialogue; the struggle to stay afloat economically (in a time where the majority of men were employed in coal mines for very little money), and, in this film’s case, it emphasizes the character’s love of sport – a simple pleasure that was one of the few enjoyed by the laborers, and one that united their regions and gave them a sense of pride.

In This Sporting Life, the “sport” in the title refers to Frank Machin’s (played by Cannes winner Richard Harris, in a role that rightfully brought him international acclaim) passion for rugby counterbalanced by his mundane existence in Yorkshire. “It’s only a game,” one character says. The look on Frank’s face simply says that for him, rugby isn’t “just a game”, it is everything.

The film begins at one of Frank’s rugby matches, capturing the comraderie, the instinct, and the verve of these men who have nothing else to look forward to in their miserable lives other than their matches and going to the pub. As he is knocked out on the field, Frank begins to recall his former life as a coal miner.

Thoughts of his landlady, Mrs. Hammond, a young widow with two children (played by Harris’ real-life wife Rachel Roberts, who is light years ahead of her time in the role), elliptically pass through his head. Their relationship is complicated, to say the least. The last thing she needs is Frank “pushing in” to her life.

Frank is a beast. Even with the only person he seems to love, “Dad” Johnson (William Hartnell), he isn’t able to control his rage. He asserts his physical dominance on the old man, grabbing his hand – hard. “Why did you squeeze me hand like that?” says the exasperated old man. “I don’t know,” Frank replies with a reptilian, dead-eyed stare. Mrs. Hammond, perhaps jealous of the time he spends with “Dad”, alleges that the old man is after more than just friendship from the devilishly charming and handsome Frank. This homosexual subplot is echoed in the homoerotic shots in the locker room of naked men frolicking about and playing grab-ass constantly. It is suggested; ever-so-subtly that perhaps repressed homosexuality is the cause of Frank’s problems.

A scene at a dance hall, where Frank hits a man out of jealousy, shows this kind of pent up rage boiling over, as he, out of basic envy, assaults a stranger who is dancing with his girl. Frank has nothing to lose. He is a ticking time bomb who can’t understand his own volatile mind – when he sees someone with the thing he thinks he wants, he can’t help but to try and ruin it for the other guy. He is only capable of acting out, and thankfully, much of this ire is channeled into the sport.

What Frank would like more, though, is to channel some of this aggression into a relationship with Mrs. Hammond. Her antagonism, one would think, would deter this line of thinking, but the more she avoids him, the stronger he comes on. She always seems to be sternly flitting about the small house, getting chores done, annoyed by Frank’s constant advances. She is lost in grief for her recently deceased husband (Frank says “she just put up the shutters and stopped living”), but there is a fire burning behind her eyes that ignites when Frank is in the room. Her repressed passion is equal to Frank’s intensity.

Don’t mistake the exchanges between the two for romance, though. Mrs. Hammond won’t even wish him luck on his matches. But, fortunately, he is such a barbaric, instinctual athlete that he doesn’t need it. Cocksure and alive on the field, his triumphs are rewarded by a ball club that decides to properly employ the loose cannon. This means a lot of money for the ruffian. Money he gamely shares with the down on their luck Hammonds.

Frank becomes “property of the city”. With lots of cash to throw around and his ego constantly being fed by the adoring crowds and his managers, he turns into a sort of monstrous ego-maniac. He throws an animalistic temper tantrum when Mrs. Hammond doesn’t give him the respect and impressed reaction that he expects. In his defense, she seems to go out of her way to irritate him. It’s as though she is trying to provoke him into violence – she knows how hot his temper is, yet she prods him, and makes him feel guilty for being a success.

Even when the desperate, emotionally-isolated pair becomes dangerously romantically entangled, their relationship doesn’t improve. In these later scenes, the two performers (who were the first real-life husband and wife to be nominated for acting Oscars in the same year) master the art of non-verbal communication. They don’t say much to one another, but the tension in their body language is expertly modulated and tightly wound, which gives their scenes a particularly unpredictable feel.

The energy between the two leads is searing, and the film hinges on their chemistry. Perhaps their comfort level as husband and wife (in reality) enabled them to go to the dark corners of the psyche that strangers often can’t reach. The physical dynamic between the two is interesting – the way Mrs. Hammond doesn’t look Frank directly in the eye, or the way Frank’s chest heaves as he begins to lose his temper — are both beautifully-modulated little details that the actors pack into these startlingly original characterizations. What could have turned out to be a macho testosterone fest ends up being an entrancing duet between the two actors.

As the daring privacy develops between the two leads, and Mrs. Hammond recalls her husband’s depression, sitting with her back to Frank (as his tough guy façade crumbles), only highlights the brilliance of these two unsympathetic performances, the likes of which you’ll rarely find in contemporary filmmaking.

Frank and Mrs. Hammond’s erratic relationship is the cornerstone of the film, and you never know how their interactions will turn out. Consider the scene where Mrs. Hammond recalls making bombs in a factory with other women during World War II, her face practically sparkling with fond memories. In this tender moment, Frank gives her a Christmas present, and she seems lit from inside. It is a transcendent, fleeting moment, and the chemistry between the two, the duet of clashing styles and personalities, is what the film hinges on. It seems wild and fresh, which makes the denouement even more poignant, and the imagery of the film’s final moments chilling.

This unique and essential film stands out as being the best of its genre, showcasing a blunt sexuality along with a modern, smartly-edited sensibility. The stunning black and white photography explores the rugged landscape lovingly, and the rugby field is shot more like a gladiator’s arena (I would actually be shocked if Criterion ever releases a bad transfer, but this print is exceptionally clean and sharp).

The virtuosic filmmaking is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull in its dissection of the primal need of man to hit and be hit, and also in the way that its brutish title character has such innate hatred for women that he isn’t really able to wrap his head around it. Frank releases years of pent up aggression brought on by poverty and sexual repression and longing. The notion that intense, punishing physical contact during the matches is a substitute for sexual closeness or for human touch, period, is what makes This Sporting Life deeper and more epic than a run-of-the-mill “sports” film.

RATING 9 / 10