For a decade that started in the mid-1950s, a movement known as “Free Cinema” didn’t exactly sweep England, but it coincide, borrow from, and influence what became known in France as cinéma vérité — a movement that profoundly affected a generation of America directors who came of age in the late sixties and early seventies.
The style is a fascinating documentary approach where the filmmaker gets out of the way of the film and appears to tell his story by letting the camera capture “truth.” England’s Tony Richardson is behind two titles that are probably the best known “free cinema” entries: 1959’s “Look Back In Anger” and 1962’s “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.”
“Runner” stars a perfectly cast Tom Courtenay (you might recognize him as Antipov from “Dr. Zhivago”) as Colin Smith, a rebellious delinquent who lives with a dysfunctional family in a part of rural England that would put anyone on anti-depressants. A poorly planned robbery lands him in a reformatory school where the Governor (warden) takes a special interest in Colin’s remarkable ability to run very long distances.
The result of this is an internal tug-of-war for our protagonist. In exchange for special privilege, will Colin sell-out to The System and burnish the Governor’s rehabilitation resume by winning a race against a nearby public school? Or will he choose his integrity and independence.
Courtney is superb in the starring role, all bottled, confused, brooding rage. The story is a little slow, but does capture its fascinating, if bleak, place and time. If you love the still-life character films that hit in America a few years later (“Five Easy Pieces,” “Last Picture Show,” “Easy Rider,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”), “Runner” is well worth a look.
“The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” is available at the Warner Archive.