Watching John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar, newly restored for its 50th anniversary, fills one with a twin sense of exhilaration and melancholy. A relatively small-scale, modest film from 1963, it is possibly the peak of the early ‘British New Wave’, not quite as controversial or anti-establishment as successors such as If…. (1968), but funnier and perhaps more experimental than grittier dramas such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). It manages to incorporate surreal splashes of paint into the most painfully real canvas imaginable: a young man bored with his humdrum existence, working at an undertaker’s and living with his parents.
The fact that two young ladies strongly desire his hand-in-marriage does nothing to alleviate Billy’s angst and frustration. He has three modes of escape: disappearing into his own private fantasy world (the militaristic Ambrosia); lying to almost everyone he meets about almost everything he says; and spending time with his real love, Liz, played delightfully by a young Julie Christie.
Some old films can be appreciated today for having obviously been funny in their time, but contain humour that is essentially dated. Far fewer old films are still funny, and will likely be funny forever: Duck Soup, Dr. Strangelove, Some Like It Hot, A Fish Called Wanda. Billy Liar fits right into this list. Its bursts of surrealism, its mocking yet affectionate portrayal of almost all the peripheral characters, its strong, beautiful vernacular, and its ability to find beauty in the quotidian, elevate it into the status of stone-cold classic.
Billy Liar is consistently hilarious and profoundly moving. It is an absorbing, poignant meditation on the dreams of the average person. See it for the two central performances: an utterly captivating Julie Christie, playing a free spirit who might even be a figment of Billy’s imagination, and Tom Courtenay, in one of the towering performances of 1960s British cinema. In 90 minutes he embodies humour, wit, pathos, normality, banality, frustration, anger, libido, boyishness, listlessness, and the desire to escape – all equally believably. We care about this lost, confused soul deeply. The beauty of his performance, and all facets of this wonderful film, are enhanced and re-contextualised by Studiocanal’s full Cinemascope restoration, creating an essential, and quintessentially British, piece of cinema.
Image: Studio Canal