The 1950s is looked upon now as a picturesque era in history, especially in America (although if you watch The Last Picture Show that notion will be destroyed), but it certainly was not that way in England. With its cobblestones streets, bombed out buildings, industrial factories and cramped housing, post-war England (Northern England for this film) was the perfect bleak and dreary locale for writers and playwrights writing stories about the so-called “angry young man.”
The “angry young man” in this film is Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney, who you’ll probably know as Daddy Warbucks in the 1982 version of Annie), a 21-year-old cynical yet idealistic factory worker. Too young to let the world get the best of him yet, he spends his free time getting drunk in pubs, shooting an old woman in the “arse” with a BB gun, and pursuing an affair with a married woman named Brenda (Rachel Roberts). Interestingly enough, this was the first British film showing a man having an affair with a married woman.
This all becomes complicated when the beautiful and strong willed Doreen (Shirley Ann Field) shows up and Brenda becomes pregnant. How the situation gets tied up is resolved too neatly; after an altercation with Brenda’s husband (Bryan Pringle), Brenda just disappears quietly. Doreen also takes the revelation of Arthur’s affair rather too well and her and Arthur both end up together without any fuss. It sounds like a normal ending, but for such a freewheeling, slice of life film it feels “too Hollywood”.
Where the movie does shine is in the writing and the performances. Although you may have difficulty at times understanding the thick Northern English accents, there’s no doubt that these are great actors speaking great dialogue. One of the main reasons that this is an effective coming of age film is the proximity of the age of the actors compared with the characters. When you watch most high school movies for example, it’s obvious that the actors playing the kids are much older than high school age. Born in 1936 and 1938 respectively, Albert Finney and Shirley Ann Field were in their early 20s when this movie was made. Now, I do think you still would have believed their performances even if they were older, but you believe them more because the characters’ feelings were most likely similar to the feelings of the actors.
Despite being referred as part of the “angry young man” films, the screenplay by Alan Sillitoe (who also wrote the book it’s based on) refuses to paint Arthur or any of the characters as emotions (besides the adults). For example, Arthur is not just an “angry young man” and it’s easy to see why many writers and playwrights disparaged the term. We may sit in judgment of Arthur’s casual misogyny, which would earn him no favors with today’s crowd (on the contrary, Doreen self-assured nature could serve as a great example of strong women characters in films), but he is definitely not complacent. There’s a reason for Arthur’s anger, a reason for Doreen’s shyness, a reason for Brenda’s infidelity and even a reason for Arthur’s best friend Bert’s (Norman Rossington) complacency. Despite the dated values of the film, its sentiment of a young man trying helplessly to make his way through a cruel world will always be true and felt.