5 Essential British New Wave Movies
The British New Wave of the ’60s had a profound impact on British culture. The films of that period focused on the ordinary lives of disaffected anti-heroes against a realistic, working-class backdrop—typically shot in stark black and white with terse dialogue in heavy regional accents. The themes and aesthetic are still visible in today’s film, TV, music, literature and art.
Here are five essential British New Wave movies, listed in order of accessibility.
#1. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
(Karel Reisz, 1960)
Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) is the quintessential angry young man, working long hard hours at the factory so he can live a little at the weekends. Enjoying himself usually means ten pints of stout, a packet of fags, and a quick knee-trembler in the bushes around the back of the social club. He views the world with utter contempt, and is determined not to end up like his parents, “dead from the neck up.”
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is surly and cynical. The film is ripe with vicious, polemical dialogue from screenwriter Alan Sillitoe, who adapted his own novel for the screen. Viewers only familiar with Finney’s cosy work in films like Big Fish and Skyfall will be in for a pleasant shock—he’s absolutely mesmerizing here. It’s also a beautiful film to look at. Shot in sooty black and white by the brilliant Freddie Francis—cinematographer on classics such as The Innocents and The Elephant Man.
#2. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
(Tony Richardson, 1962)
Writer Sillitoe is at it again, this time crafting a compelling and intimate tale of rebellious youth and class warfare from his own short story. Tom Courtenay is outstanding as Colin Smith, a petty criminal from a tough working-class background who ends up in borstal after robbing a bakery. Told largely in flashback during our protagonist’s early morning runs, Smith’s final act of self-defeating rebellion is magnificent, with a montage cut with the precision of Keyser Soze’s final reveal in The Usual Suspects.
#3. This Sporting Life
(Lindsay Anderson, 1963)
Hellraiser Richard Harris turned in his finest performance in This Sporting Life. The actor’s volatile charisma was a great fit for the lustful, brutish Frank Machin—a coal miner-turned-rugby league player, whose talent is matched only by his violent streak. Off the field, Machin engages in a tempestuous, ill-fated relationship with his recently widowed landlady.
Anderson directs with panache, employing an aggressive flashback structure. His matchday scenes still rank among the best ever filmed, making egg-chasing look raw, immediate and gladiatorial.
#4. A Taste of Honey
(Tony Richardson, 1961)
Controversial at the time for its depiction of interracial sexual relationships and homosexuality, A Taste of Honey makes a refreshing watch today as a story told from a woman’s perspective in a time of deep-seated sexism. Breezy and tender, the film is about a seventeen-year-old schoolgirl, Jo (Rita Tushingham), who spent her childhood trailing around from one grubby bedsit to the next with her boozy, irresponsible mother Helen (Dora Bryan, stealing just about every scene she’s in.) Left high and dry when her mum marries her fancy man, Jo ends up pregnant by a black sailor, and lodging with a gay student when her beau goes back to sea.
Tushingham makes a brilliant screen debut as Jo, stranded on the wrong side of just about every social and economic barrier of the era. It’s a deeply empathetic, unsentimental performance, making Jo embattled but never a victim.
#5. Billy Liar
(John Schlesinger, 1963)
Billy Liar makes just about every list of British New Wave movies, and for good reason! The film is regarded as the punctuation mark before British film moved into a different era, specifically the “Swinging London” movies (Darling, Alfie and Blow Up).
Tom Courtenay stars as Billy Fisher, a childish pathological liar who seeks refuge from his humdrum existence in an elaborate fantasy world. There’s little to connect him with the other anti-heroes of the period besides his existential angst. That’s because Fisher comes from a comfortable middle-class background and works a steady job at a funeral directors.
Billy Liar is required watching for anyone interested in the evolution of British cinema.