Anger is a dated film. It is not simply dated because of its gritty, black and white texture, and its stark and somewhat schematic portrayal of class conflict in 1950’s postwar Britain. It is dated by the lack of importance it gives to race in Great Britain, and also by the pitting of men against women, with working class men becoming ‘the good’ that is the radical sex, while women are cast in subordinate, subservient, and constraining roles.
In terms of the plot of “Look Back in Anger,” the protagonist, an educated working class lad of taste, talent, and verbal alacrity, named Jimmy Porter, is reduced to selling sweets to make a living in an England that denies him advancement because of his class. He is constantly angry at the limited life he leads, and takes to lashing out at his wife and playing the trumpet to release his anger. The actor who portrays Jimmy on film, Richard Burton, has an accent and a demeanor that strikes a viewer as overly refined, especially when contrasted with the actor who plays Cliff, who seems more authentically of a ‘lower’ class. However, the viewer is told by so many characters and by Jimmy himself, ad nausea, that Jimmy is ‘common’ that eventually the viewer surrenders and accepts that yes, Richard Burton playing Jimmy Porter is working class, despite his way of speaking and comporting himself.
Jimmy Porter talks a great deal, and his favorite topic of conversation is how his wife Alison symbolizes all that is contented and bad about middle-class England. But even her own father, a retired army general from England, criticizes her attitude. Her father likes Jimmy, and Jimmy likes his father-in-law, despite his class resentments, because the man reminds him of his own father, who died soon after returning from fighting for freedom in Spain — much to the resentment of Jimmy’s own despised mother. The only good woman to Jimmy in the entire play is the old woman who bought him the sweet shop stall — and who conveniently dies very soon in the film, so she cannot fall from Jimmy’s idealized pedestal.
Thus, women are shown to be against men, even more than classes are shown to be against other classes. Gender is really the dichotomy that frames the story, as good men are present even in the middle classes, like Alison’s father, but the only good woman is an elderly, asexual female of the working class. The story is almost completely focused on the emotional development of men, particularly working class men, as the needed resource to be developed to create a better England. Thus, Jimmy is shown to be the center of the life of two women, both his fragile wife Alison, played by Mary Ure, and her friend and rival Helena, played by the luminous actress Claire Bloom, who criticizes the Porter’s life together before becoming Jimmy’s lover, when Alison goes back to live with her mother after becoming pregnant. Jimmy’s mother-in-law’s hatred for Jimmy, as opposed to the young woman’s father is always stressed. Women are seen as more complacent in the dominant order — by Jimmy but also in terms of the ideological slant of the film, which never questions Jimmy’s perspective. Even the relatively nice Cliff, Jimmy’s friend, backs up Jimmy’s violent outbursts, when pressed.
The film is also somewhat confusing today, as despite the discussion of class frequently made in the film, because the film is of a British play, written by John Osborne for the stage originally, by a British director with a British cast, certain knowledge about the class system of postwar England is assumed rather than explained. For instance, there is no representation of the aristocracy, its power is merely referenced from afar and discussed as thwarting Jimmy’s vocational and artistic ambitions. Even though Jimmy is a university graduate, he has not been able to find a job that channels his energy, dooming him to what he sees as failure. Alison’s mother appears only in the letters she writes to the girl, but if what Jimmy says is true, she hoped her daughter would marry ‘up’ rather than ‘down’ in the British class system and thus dislikes her daughter’s working class husband. Helena further confuses the contemporary viewer in terms of her class — as an actress, she would seem to be a bohemian, and must stay with the tightly housed married couple while doing a play, even though space is of a premium for Alison and Jimmy, given the presence of Cliff as an additional lodger. But she looks down upon their way of life as improper — somehow, Helena has been mimicking the upper crust upon the stage for so long, she has adopted its manners and morals. She frowns upon participation in the practice of adultery, yet commits this transgression anyway. Like a chameleon, Helena simply blends in with whatever situation, class wise and morally, she finds her in and then leaves.
The only clear class markers are Jimmy’s working class status, because it is talked about so much, and Alison’s middle class status. Remarkably, the middle class female is supposed to be so docile that Alison does not even reproach her friend for engaging in adultery with her husband — the middle class of Britain, especially British women, are supposed to be so weak, that Alison does not even get angry, ever. When she engages in a bit of shouting at the end, it is not against Jimmy, but to be like Jimmy, saying she wants to be a failure, too. In other words, she wants to be like her husband, not her mother, in class — but the option of making her chose between the two, rather than chose her own path seems limiting in terms of the scope of choice places on women’s lives. The only financially independent women depicted at any length in the play in their person of Helena, suggests that women on their own are weak and need the moral guidance of a ‘real man’ like Jimmy.
Race plays almost no factor in this film, even while Jimmy tries to blare out jazz hits of American Black musical artists, and Alison’s father presumably killed or oversaw nonwhite men and women while fighting in India. The focus of this early film is unquestioningly white, and its moral dilemmas are as black and white as the cinematography. The viewer is asked — who will you choice, Jimmy or Alison, man or woman — and a viewer of today will likely wish to opt out of this choice altogether.
“Look Back in Anger.” Directed by Tony Richardson. 1958.
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