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A young British clerk in a gloomy North Country undertaker's office, Billy is bombarded daily by the propaganda of the media that all things are for the asking. This transparently false doctrine, coupled with the humdrum job and his wild imagination, leads him on frequent flights to "Ambrosia," a mythical kingdom where he is crowned king, general, lover or any idealized hero the real situation of the moment makes him desire. His vacillating commitment and post-adolescent immaturity have created situations which make Ambrosia all the more attractive. He's succeeded in becoming engaged to two different girls, simultaneously, while in love with a third, Liz. He's in hot water with his employer, having spent a rather large sum of postage money on his personal frivolities. And last, but not least, his dream of becoming a highly-paid, famous scriptwriter in London seems doomed to failure. The only person in his life capable of bringing him down to earth is Liz, and she's having a difficult ... Written by
"Billy Liar!" impressed me more than many other admirable British pictures of this era, like "Room at the Top", "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" and "This Sporting Life". It managed to generate a more tangible blend of poignancy and amusement. It's not often humour of the "laugh-out-loud" nature, more of the subtle, grim kind. The reality of Britain at that time is I suspect, very well conveyed here, with the old working-class, represented by Councillor Duxbury (astutely played by the fine Finlay Currie) and Billy's family, very much at odds with what they see as an ungrateful, decadent youth. All the performances hit the intended mark, with Leonard Rossiter typically Rossiter, almost as a younger Rigsby, without so much noticeable seediness. Julie Christie is as good as the role allows, an odd role, very much the "dream girl" of Billy and I dare say a good few others. The film expertly avoids sentimentalizing matters by its cunning, apposite last section. The Danny Boon character is, one suspects, all too typical of the TV light entertainer mould in reality. His reliance on cheap non-gags, smug guffaws and "audience banter" is well conveyed in just a few short scenes. It's interesting that Billy seems to aspire so much to write for him in particular... Helen Fraser's character Barbara is wonderfully quaint; a type long gone it seems. One can understand Billy's frustrations with his respectively prudish and plain (Barbara) and ignorant (Rita) girlfriends, and his anger at his family, although some sympathy is correctly reserved for them. The direction is very good by Schlesinger, emphasizing all the right things. The fine context-setting opening montage expertly draws in the viewer, and never at any stage henceforth is anyone's attention likely to wane. The film is most of all Tom Courtenay's; he gives a truly resonant performance, bringing to vivid life a character far removed from the norms of film making at the time. The fantasy sequences are finely done, and all add more deep impression of this character. His digressive tendencies, self-destructive habits, economy with the truth are well balanced by a sense of yearning and imagination. One cannot help but like and relate to the character, a creation that resoundingly rings true. His ambivalence to the class system comes across concisely, in particular. A fine film indeed, with so many of the smaller touches that many films miss. Witty, sad and a seminal film of the era, very much a crossroads in British history. Rating:- **** 1/2/*****
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