Cult Movie: The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner is a minor masterpiece

Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner
Ralph McLean

THE Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner is a curious film, very much of its time but still impressive and thought provoking in 2018.

Released in 1962, director Tony Richardson's adaptation of Alan Sillitoe's novel is a powerful tale of rebellion and conformity as seen through the eyes of Colin (played by Tom Courtenay in one of his earliest screen roles) a young man who finds himself in a correctional facility after being caught stealing some money.

With his home life in chaos – his dad has died and his mother has taken up with another man – Colin finds solace in his natural ability for cross-country running. His skills are swiftly spotted by the governor of the young offenders centre (Michael Redgrave) who encourages Colin to develop his ability with the hope that he'll beat the local elite boarding school boys at the next big cross-country meeting.

Life doesn't work like that, however, and Richardson's film follows Colin on his journey, through a mixture of impressive tracking shots, disorientating flashbacks and inner monologues. It's all shot in beautiful black and white and looks luscious throughout.

A prime slice of the so-called Angry Young Man school of film-making that arrived in the early 60s, it's got the class conscious-chip on its northern English shoulder that informed much of that movement's finest films but it's also imbued with a strong sense of romanticism that sets it apart from crowd.

The BFI's new Blu-ray release, as part of their wider Woodfall Films retrospective which I covered last week, is a reminder of just how fresh, stylish and inventive that British New Wave of film-making really was, how impressive Loneliness is as a prime example of that movement and how brilliant the young Tom Courtenay was as Colin, the mixed-up young man struggling to get his life back on course.

As the big race approaches, Richardson cranks up the craziness as Colin's head fills with childhood memories as he races himself into the ground. As a product of the Angry Young Man mindset, there's no happy ending in sight as the finish line appears but it's impossible not to marvel at the beauty of what is achieved here.

Much of the dialogue, probably considered quite tough and cutting in 1962, might seem a bit tame and even twee today and Courtenay is clearly slightly too old to be playing a young offender but this is a brave film that tackles its subject with real guts and the kind of full-blown determination that a long-distance runner could certainly appreciate.

A simple tale of one young man going off the rails and trying to find his feet again is told with a wild, almost crazed sense of adventure that ensures Colin's story lives on in the memory long after the race is over.

A minor masterpiece of moody British film-making at its most inventive, The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner is a true winner.

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