After a productive career as a director of documentaries, Lindsay Anderson ventured into the world of fictional storytelling in the early 1960s, although the filmmaker's documentary sensibilities could still be felt. One of his first feature films was This Sporting Life in 1963, which shares the tale of a minor turned successful rugby player star named Frank Michen (Richard Harris, in tip top shape) in Yorkshire, a town which had been the focus of one of the director's previous documentaries. The protagonist currently lives in the home of Mrs. Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts, appropriately icy), a widow and mother of two who rents Frank a room. The film's narrative is served in non-chronological order at first and is comprised of Frank's recollections about his time with Mrs. Hammond. This technique is used until about the 2/3 mark when the viewer has fully caught up with the history of their relationship and the tale continues in the proper traditional order.
Anderson'S film carries significant emotional weight. The characters, as we meet them, emerge from less than glorious pasts and must wrestle with a tumultuous present and conflicting emotions. Frank is a man whose emotions get the better of him most of the time. There seems to be a chip on his shoulder 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. His previous profession as a minor surely added to his toughness, although through Richard Harris' performance the viewer can identify that there is something much greater eating away at his insides. One element could be his lot in life before reaching his current status as a rugby player. The luck of the draw that others have had, such as the money mongering owners his of club, would be another. The brutal poundings and unforgiving afternoons on the always muddy Northern England rugby fields. Most of all, and at least pertaining to this chapter in the man's life, it is the obstinate refusal of Mrs. Hammond, Margaret as he begins to call her by her first name, to accept the version of happiness that Frank offers her. Margaret rarely displays any signs of warmth or pleasantness, preferring to perform her daily chores in utter seriousness, with a hint of bitterness in her gaze and verbal language. With her husband now gone, she is definitely in survival mode with her children, but the memory of her late husband haunts and still complicates matters once Frank, in his suitably unsubtle fashion, begins to develop and express his attraction to her. The balance of power goes on between a desire to find love or some form of happiness, and his naturally angry, abrasive self, which doesn't permit him to become someone easy to love, or even like for that matter. This struggle from within as well as his incomprehension towards Margaret's stubborn attitude, are what define him as a character.
Richard Harris' job is to convey these conflicting and powerful realities, and convey them he most certainly does. Even upon acquiring a higher societal status (relatively speaking) thanks to his relative success on the rugby pitch, Frank shows that he hasn't changed much. There will always be something clumsy about him, the source of which can found in his overwhelming rush of anger and dissatisfaction. The performance by Harris has been praised on many an occasion and there is little I can add in this review that will break new ground. I truly think it is of the highest order, and at times very loud and at times even slightly touching. Mostly loud though.
Rachel Roberts is not to be overlooked however. What she lacks in the departments of brute strength she makes up for in bitterness and her own sense of dissatisfaction, the results of her inability to let go of the past. 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.' Her cold demeanor towards Frank, particularly when he makes genuine attempts at lightening her mood(awkward as those attempts may seem to many of us), is enough to reveal that her heart has been turned black. Her character is a fascinating puzzle. After all, Frank is truly attempting to lift her spirits and hopefully guide her towards some happiness. Should she not accept this, or least give in a little bit and let go of this unwelcoming exterior shell? There is a case to be made there. Conversely however, we the audience know that Frank's emotions are unstable even during the best of times, and Margaret knows this as well. By opening up to him, she may very well be incurring the risk of more frustration at some point down the road. There is a case to be made there too. Two deeply flawed people who unquestionably require some stability in their lives, but who in the end may not be the least bit compatible. And yet their dance continues, the first steps of which are always initiated by Frank.
Adapted as a screenplay by David Storey, the man who authored the novel of the same name, This Sporting Life is qualified as a 'kitchen sink drama' and as one of the greatest British films ever made. I unfortunately have not seen a sufficient number of British films in order to confidently agree with the latter statement. I can argue that the film is a whalloping punch, with characters who we wish could be better, or find a way to become better in their minds or hearts, but who are ultimately destined to live with the pains they have been cursed with. Reality bites very hard sometimes.