Billy Liar (1963)

Dir: John Schlesinger, with Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie (DVD)

It’s many years since I saw this film, and my take on it has changed somewhat. As a teenager, I was completely on Billy’s side; who wouldn’t fantasise about escaping from such a straitjacket of a town? In identifying emotionally with Billy and Liz, I missed a great deal else. Now I see it with a wider frame of reference and a more nuanced view . . . to the point where I’m wondering if Billy’s parents had a point!

I have grown old. But I understand repression more.

Modernity is hovering at the edges of the film: demolition of old houses, construction of new flats, Shadrack’s plastic coffins, new supermarkets, Liz prefiguring the stereotypical free-spirit of the sixties (cue jazzy music as she makes her entrance). In contrast, Billy’s fantasies have an archaic air; they’re not dreams of the future but a comfort blanket from the present. His fantasies of machine-gunning his critics haven’t dated well (unless Schlesinger was predicting Columbine or “if . . .”).

With the notion of categorising people as “somewheres” and “nowheres” currently in vogue, it’s mildly interesting that Liz champions going somewhere where nobody knows you, whereas Mr (“Councillor to you”) Duxbury, in a serious moment, tells Billy that he can’t make a life without other people. You can see how Billy is conflicted: the stifling town has made him and gives him and Arthur something to mock uproariously, but London might mock him. (And his grandmother has just died. There is some importance in family.)

It’s an amusing and verbally witty film, but there’s an undertone of poignancy throughout. The funeral parlour, Mona Washbourne’s Flemish madonna face, the frustration of a clever boy trapped in a dreary job with a hectoring father and girlfriend trouble of his own making. Even his best friend is fed up with him by the end.

Oh, why not just get on that train?

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