Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Billy Liar: the Malignant Walter Mitty

In 1963, British actor Tom Courtenay starred in John Schlesinger's classic movie Billy Liar. Based on Keith Waterhouse book, it tells the story of a low-functioning working class psychopathic personality living in the North of England during a period of post-War change and rejuvenation. On the surface, Billy can be seen as an immature, anti-authoritarian figure who is unable to relate to his community. However, below his almost 'hapless' public persona, lies a remorseless manipulator. His pathology rarely going beyond serial lying and fantasy. The movie itself looks very un-British in feel, and owes much of the visual and narrative approach to 1950s French and Italian cinema.

The fantasy scenes are reminiscent of Leopold Bloom's escapist visions in James Joyce's Ulysses, however, unlike Bloom who longs to be the king of Ireland were Jews and Gentiles create a liberal utopia, Billy Liar's imaginary trips to his kingdom of Ambrosia are purely narcissistic and ego-compensatory. In Ambrosia, all bow down before Billy Liar as their living god. Something this devious individual is unable to obtain on the streets of Bradford, Yorkshire.

Billy in reality, becomes engaged to two different girls at the same time, while he idealises the beautiful Liz played by the always sublime Julie Christie. Without spoiling the plot, even a chance of success in London is cast aside in order for Billy to remain a successful manipulator in his hometown. Billy Liar is one of the best British films and launched a genre which was to become known later as 'kitchen sink' for their gritty portrayal of working class life.

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