Adapted from the short story by Alan Sillitoe, whose Saturday Night and Sunday Morning had taken the British box office by storm just two years earlier, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) once again showed a member of the poor, Northern working class trying to break free from his “captors” – be it the Establishment or the daily 9-to-5 grind.
The film introduces Nottingham youth Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay), an unfocussed teenager who would rather hang about with his mate Mike (James Bolam) than get a job. Colin’s desire to have fun finally has consequences when he’s arrested for robbing a bakery and sent to a borstal (boy’s prison).
While incarcerated, Colin is noticed by the borstal’s governor (Michael Redgrave), who recognises the boy’s running prowess and who sees him as a likely candidate for an upcoming competition with a rival school.
Like the original short story, the film plays with the viewer, taking them back and forth in Colin’s recent life to explain the reasons for his deeds. Director Tony Richardson, who produced Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and who had been a key player in the Free Cinema movement in the 1950s, doesn’t resort to camera trickery for his flashbacks and forwards, instead simply moving from scene to scene and letting the viewer decide where they are in the story.
Courtenay, in his first film role, comes to the film with a similar kind of vitality to Albert Finney in Saturday Night, though his physique and attitude certainly differs.
Colin is just a lad who wants to have fun, and, like most petty criminals, it’s partly down to his surroundings that he’s going off the rails. He’s also not an intrinsically “bad” person, making it easier to identify with his attitude as the film progresses.
As the governor of the borstal, Michael Redgrave (The Lady Vanishes) offers up a similar performance to that of the Medical Officer in 1965’s The Hill, someone who has become as much a prisoner of the system as those in his care.
The skill of the script is to make the audience feel almost as much compassion for him as for Colin, the quiet resignation with which he responds to Colin’s act of rebellion at the end of the picture saying more than any words could hope to.
Although very much a product of its time, Loneliness is still a vital film in understanding the changes in society that were taking place in 1960s Britain. It refuses to patronise either its protagonists or its viewers, working as both a successful entry in the “social realism” canon and as a taught drama about human relationships.
Blu-ray Special Features
Complementing the main feature is a commentary by film historian Robert Murphy, with lead actor Tom Courtenay and writer Alan Sillitoe. All of those involved are clearly happy to be a part of the production, Courtenay in particular bringing some interesting thoughts and perspective to his career-defining role.
Elsewhere there’s a short video essay by cinematographer Walter Lassally and another example of Free Cinema in Momma Don’t Allow (1956), a documentary from Tony Richardson and Walter Lassally. Kudos to the BFI for providing such a relevant piece of film to this package, all done to the sound of the underground, Chris Barber’s jazz music.
An illustrated booklet including essays and biographies completes this comprehensive set.
- Release date: 23 March
- RRP: DVD £17.99 / cat. no. BFIVD785 / Blu-ray £22.99 / cat. no. BFIB1003
- Running time: 104 mins
- Certificate: 12
- Original aspect ratio 1.78:1
- Optional subtitles for the hearing-impaired