Richard Burton plays archetypal angry young man Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, from which Oasis derived a song title and much of their behaviour.
Adapted from John Osborne’s play by Nigel “Quatermass” Kneale, this 1959 drama follows the abusive relationship between Jimmy and his (unbeknown to him) pregnant wife (Mary Ure). It brings to mind the story from the production of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer that Michael Rooker stayed in character so frighteningly for the duration of the shoot that his wife waited until it was over to tell him she was pregnant, except that Jimmy is like that all the time.
With Deptford market standing in for Derby, the film steps outside the play’s interior setting with excursions to train stations inspired by Brief Encounter (another iconic British love triangle) but Tony Richardson’s intensely cramped, grey direction is a far cry from David Lean’s romantic mise en scène. A sequence in which Jimmy interrupts a particularly stagey theatre rehearsal emphasises further the rebellion of Osborne’s seminal kitchen sink drama.
Looking back on Anger today, its indictment of toxic masculinity feels strikingly relevant if perhaps too forgiving. The characters are complex and damaged, none more so than Jimmy whose inferiority complex rivals that of Donald Trump. His caustic wit recalls Burton’s subsequent work in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, only even more violent and bilious. This central, powerhouse performance is ably supported by Gary Raymond as the kind yet complicit Cliff and Donald Pleasence (no stranger to a Kneale script) as the market inspector.
Look Back on Anger is a savage, incendiary portrait of post-war Britain, whose study of class and abuse would pave the way for the socially vital albeit depressing realism of Nil By Mouth and I, Daniel Blake as well as films made by people who haven’t been accused of antisemitism. Depressing realism indeed.