On issues that matter …

Look Back in Anger July 14, 2013

I don’t get to post much primarily because of my academic preoccupation. So I thought why not post one of my academic “workouts”…:-)

This is a Content Analysis of the 1959 movie “Look Back in Anger”. Some you might find it worth contemplating (if you happen to watch the movie after reading this) ideologically, on life then and life now; on what has changed from then to now; and if anything has changed at all… if nothing, I would still say it’s worth watching for Richard Burton.


“Look Back in Anger”

Adapted from the play ‘Look Back in Anger’ by John Osborne

Initial Release Date: September 15, 1959

Director: Tony Richardson

Screenplay: John Osborne, Nigel Kneale

Cinematography: Oswald Morris

Lead Cast:

Richard Burton as Jimmy Porter

Mary Ure as Alison Porter

Claire Bloom as Helena Charles

Gary Raymond as Cliff Lewis


“I suppose people of our generation aren’t able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties and the forties, when we were still kids. …There aren’t any good, brave causes left.”

Looking back, the above Richard Burton dialogue from the 1959 film ‘Look Back in Anger’ does remind you that they don’t make angry young men like him anymore.

On this dialogue also hinges the thematic cause of the film – to mourn the demise of the great British Empire, the defeat of the British at the hands of the Nazis in World War II, the dreary and austere post-war era in Britain, and the grudging advent of the “American age”.

Richard Burton plays to near perfection the iconic character of Jimmy Porter in this classic, which gave rise to an entire movement in filmmaking called the British New Wave.

That’s the foregrounding of director Tony Richardson’s genre-setting film ‘Look Back in Anger’, an adaptation of the stage play of the same title by John Osborne.

Toeing Raymond Williams’ argument on what constitutes social realism in film, ‘Look Back in Anger’ justifies the “realities of the time” in terms of characters, location-setting, mise-en-scene and dialogue. Particularly notable is the pigeon-holed existence of the protagonists in a working class neighborhood.

This analysis of ‘Look Back in Anger’ attempts to understand anger the way the cinematic auteurs expressed it then, and the way it may be interpreted in a contemporary perspective.

Critical, however, to this analysis is to try to place the protagonist in his own generation and genre of socio-political cinema.


The genesis of the Angry Young Men / British New Wave / Kitchen Sink Drama

For Tony Richardson to take on John Osborne’s ground-breaking stage play and adapt it to cinema was perhaps like the coming together of brothers in arms. Both Osborne and Richardson were part of a coterie of “angry young men” – named thus for their anti-establishment and socialist-inspired ideologies expressed through their cinema.

The British New Wave cinema swept Britain in the late aftermath of World War II, and spawned in its wake a slew of ‘angry’ movies in a rather short-lived span of five years.

Social hierarchies, class distinctions, unemployment, racial discrimination and general lack of opportunities for educated youth were some of the burning ‘causes’ which seemed to consume the social rebels of the time, some of whom like Osborne and Richardson, vented it out through their creative craft.

Such left-leaning movies emerged from what also came to be called as “kitchen sink drama” for their gritty and realistic narratives; Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, and John Schlesinger were the four filmmakers associated with it.

The British new wave was happening around the same time as the French and Italian new wave – a time when India too was seeing much of its social ills depicted in neo-realistic cinema that basically explored everyday life, such as seen in the cinema of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak.

Content Analysis

Jimmy Porter’s “Anger”

Jimmy Porter is angry about everything in life, from the fascist-minded authorities, racism and organized religion to his wife Alison’s passivity, her family’s upper class status; his “commoner” friend Cliff’s lack of sophistication; and his wife’s judgmental friend Helena.

That’s not all. He is also angry about the flakiness of the Sunday newspapers, the welfare state, bad art, politics, and society in general. Further added to that is the death of his father when he was still a child.

To say Jimmy Porter stands singularly as a symbol of all of society’s underpinnings of his time would be an understatement considering the scope and depth of the anger expressed throughout the film.

Perhaps, the creators of the character packed in too many causal layers to his angst, but then it just is plausible that such sensitivity does exist. It reminds you of the character played by Raza Murad in the 1973 Hrishikesh Mukherjee film “Namak Haraam” where unable to bear the pain of the social evils he sees around him, he self-destructs by drinking. Symbolic as the character is, it makes the pain believable.

And so with Jimmy Porter, whether he is literally shouting down his wife, Alison into disillusionment or insulting his best friend, Cliff, it is simply tolerated by them as a manifestation of his frustration.

To understand Porter in his social milieu, one can see him as being caught between remnants of the pre-WWII rigid structures and the onset of popular American culture in the late ‘50s. Needless to say, he did not relate to either genre and was cynical of both. By the late 1950s, Britain was already coming out of the pre-war austerity and experiencing a level of affluence at the middle class level that made for uncomfortable intellectual discourse. And that is where Porter’s frustration stemmed from – he simply had no audience for his rebellion.

In one scene he is mocked by Helena, albeit indulgently, as still being “stuck in the middle of the French Revolution.”

Whether he had a justified cause or not, he was a rebel indeed who, when asked what he really wanted, says: “Everything”, in the next instant averting his eyes to say rather self-piteously: “Nothing”.

Jimmy Porter’s “anger” revisited

Although Jimmy’s anger is purportedly towards social and political realities that were beyond his control, underneath that, it would seem, is his own failure to get a decent job; his embarrassment at having obtained a state-subsidized graduate degree; his loathing at having to run a sweets stall at the local market; his lack of social class; and his cramped existence in a small apartment.

He seeks righteous justification for his obnoxious behavior when he says: “I learned at an early age what it is to be angry,” referring to the death of his father, while he was still a child.

His relentless and visceral diatribes against Alison often make Jimmy flawed to the point of irrationality than make the viewer see him as one who is disillusioned with society.

His misplaced anger (at his wife) would classify more as a male rite of passage, and any sense of martyrdom displayed – as a victim of social discrimination – appears as an excuse for a dysfunctional marriage.

As a viewer, you want to sympathize with Jimmy, but he gives you very little opportunity. Perhaps it is by design of the filmmaker, that Jimmy craves no pity. And just as well, in one of the scenes, Jimmy tells Helena “You may think of me as despicable.”

Portrayal of women

In Richardson’s – and Osborne’s – universe, the British woman of the era, whether from an upper class background or working, was essentially domesticated. She scrupulously ironed clothes, served tea and food, cleared the dishes, and generally kept house besides acquiescing to a man’s dominance.

That condescending view of women in general is amply stated through Jimmy’s dialogue. In a particular sequence Jimmy tells Cliff with regard to women: It’s never the same… today’s meal is always different from yesterday’s… the last woman is never the same as the one before.”

As the long suffering wife, Alison’s character appears clichéd. She even rationalizes her husband’s anger as a “silly symphony for people who can’t bear the pain of being human beings any longer.”

But then, she reaches a breaking point where, with the help of her friend Helena, she leaves Jimmy to go off to her parents’ home.

What comes across as ironic, however, is Helena’s character. Having encouraged Alison to leave her abusive husband, she herself falls in love with Jimmy. Jimmy’s uncharitable remarks on Helena, such as calling her an “evil little virgin”, obviously has no bearing on her feelings for him.

The women almost seem misogynistic. In one of his diatribes against his wife, Jimmy hopes “to see her suffer the death of her child.” Alison does lose her unborn child eventually. Still, in the end, she goes back to her husband.

Sub cultures

What’s a British film without a condescending touch of the ubiquitous Indian character? The character of “Kapoor”, an Indian vendor at the market where Porter sells his wares, was not without consequence. It was used to good effect to bring out the race aspect or simply a pervasive anti-Indian sentiment in British society.

Kapoor’s license to run his stall is revoked by a vindictive market inspector at the instigation of the customary racist elements who simply do not want an Indian amongst them. Porter’s helplessness in the situation adds another dimension to Porter’s potent anger.

When a frustrated Porter asks Kapoor, “What made you come to this bloody country (Britain), anyway?” Kapoor says: “I came because in India I was an outcaste, an untouchable.”

This scene, more than any other, validates Burton’s talent in essaying a gamut of emotions from helplessness, frustration to anger with eyes that speak a thousand words where mere language would have failed.

Although a reflection of the times, to the present day viewer the scene comes across as patronizing. Perhaps, it was the director’s attempt at self-consolation that there are societies far worse than a racist Britain.

Besides, no Kapoor in India would be classified as an “outcaste” or an “untouchable”, a scripting lacuna that in itself smacks of overriding British patronization of Indians at that time.

Semiotic Analysis

Between director Tony Richardson and cinematographer Oswald Morris, Look Back in Anger achieves its aim of conveying the pain and suffering of the lead characters, through use of space – or the lack of it.

Most of the narrative happens between Jimmy’s dingy little apartment and the market where he sells sweets. The apartment is actually a cramped attic space full of old furniture.

1. The significance of the iron board in the living room. Although an innocuous feature of an ordinary household – when used by Alison, it becomes a symbol of her downgraded lifestyle as Jimmy’s wife.

The same iron board, however, becomes a chore of happy domesticity when later Helena uses it, indicating her willing acceptance of a working class life with Jimmy.

2. The significance of the narrow staircase leading up to the apartment and the extremely small landing at the bottom of the stairs: This setting throws up many meanings in the sequence where Alison decides to leave Jimmy and go away with her father to her parental home. The shot has Alison saying goodbye to Cliff at the bottom of the stairs. Beyond the passageway – in deep focus – the door leading out into the street is open, streaming bright light; Alison’s father is loading her luggage into the parked car on the street, and you see little children on roller skates, happily playing up and down the sidewalk.

The open door with the bright light outside indicates the freedom for Alison from the dingy space of the apartment, the suffocation of her marriage; and the happy children indicate the prospect of a carefree life once again when she goes back to her parents.

3. The diegetic sound of jazz music: Jimmy seems to find some outlet for his anger by playing the trumpet and identifying himself with Black American music that was asserting itself in the face of American pop culture at the time. This not only is a throw back on his rejection of popular American culture, but also on his identification with the underdog.

4. Of the other protagonists, while Cliff’s character may be looked upon as a mute spectator of all that is wrong with the lot of the working class in post-war Britain, Helena’s character comes across as a catalyst for change – a change, perhaps for the better.


To understand Jimmy’s anger one might be better served to understand Osborne himself, who wrote in an article that Jimmy’s anger is a manifestation of the subliminal anger felt by a generation of men domesticated by a feminine culture. For the contemporary viewer, this understanding, however, does not serve to rationalize over-the-top chauvinism.

In retrospect, ‘Look Back in Anger’ is not about Jimmy Porter’s anger or Richard Burton’s anger for that matter, but John Osborne’s anger that was cinematically validated by Tony Richardson. Were Osborne and Richardson representative of all of their generation of men, maybe not. But were they representative of men who believed in hyperbolic expressionism? Maybe yes.




Angry young men of India

It would be nearly a decade after the angry young men of the British new wave cinema shut shop that the conceptual “anger” hit Indian cinema. Although one name in mainstream Hindi cinema, that of actor Amitabh Bachchan rode the crest of the “angry young man” wave, the phase of anger spread across all of Indian cinema during the 1970s and ‘80s.

That was the period in India when political, social and economic issues resulting in large scale unemployment, poverty and communal strife created an atmosphere of discontent and resentment among the youth, which was effectively essayed in mainstream Indian movies of the time.

To draw parallels to the British new wave, the angry young man in Indian cinema of the ‘70s and ‘80s too had righteous cause to rebel against the system. As the underdog, the worker, the middle class lover, and the good cop, the hero fought against the rich, the capitalist, the system and a subservient society.

Dialogues such as “Pain is my destiny, and I can’t avoid it” (Kaala Paththar, 1979); “Mazdoor ka paseena sookhne se pehle uski majdoori mil jaani chaahiye” (Coolie, 1983); and “Mard ko kabhi dard nahi hota” (Mard, 1985) all of them delivered by Amitabh Bachchan in each of the films, are not only reminiscent of the angst ridden British New Wave, but also a hark back on the machismo of the male protagonist in those movies.


“Anger” in contemporary Indian cinema

In post-liberalization India of today, the movie hero is no longer the poor, working class underdog. But he is still angry. He is not angry at the system anymore because he is part of the same system. He is angry nevertheless, but without a cause.

Significant to the Indian cinema ethos is the need for the hero to be the alpha-male who bashes up people irrespective of whether he himself is the good guy or not. So you have a Salman Khan in the Dabbang series where he is the bad cop with a good heart; an Aamir Khan in Fanaa where he is a terrorist who mercilessly blows up innocent people but is capable of falling in love; and a Shah Rukh Khan in Kabhi Alvida Na Kehnaa, who cheats on his wife because he is angry and frustrated over his physical handicap, and his wife’s professional success.

It’s the age of the anti-hero, who is angry, but for entirely personal causes, which could in fact be against conventional social norms.


Srirekha Chakravarty








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