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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
Most novels may not necessary translate well to the stage, let alone to the Big screen. 'Billy Liar' has achieved all that. I have just recently discovered this 'hidden' gem from among the throngs of DVD shelves. The reason I 'picked it up' was due largely to the director's name, John Schlesinger. Having seen his catapult to American fame 'Midnight Cowboy', I reckon why not check out his earlier British work. Boy was I astonished!
First of all, the script. The adapted screenplay by the original writers Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall is wickedly witty and performative for theatre dramatics, yet it crosses perfectly to the realms of cinema. The cut-aways to the lavishly staged dream sequences are so effective, so in contrast to the stark realism that we get from most of the on-location filming (from the DVD bonus features, the two writers actually take you on a present day 'tour' of a couple of the 'real'locations, juxtaposed with snippets of the film sequences at exactly the same spots).
Also commendable is the black and white cinematography by veteran Bristish lensman Denys Coop. Done in Cinemascope, the depth of Hinchcliffe Avenue can only be fully realised in the widescreen format, so avoid the re-formatted tv release at all costs!
And I must say the most amazing thing about the film is still the performance. Schlesinger rarely fails to bring out the best from his actors, and this seminal work is no exception. All the supporting cast, from 'Mr Shadrack ', Billy's family and girlfriends played very well to be the 'plastic reality' that's driving Billy insane. Hence, he seeks solance,affirmation and escape in his fantasies and lies, but ultimately we know which track he ends back on.
Tom Courtenay is simply 'Billy Liar'. Somehow, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Ewen Macgregor, or perhaps that's just me. It was mentioned that Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, who have both played the title character on stage, were considered for the the film role at the same time. I can't help but only wonder how it would've turned out if Finney got the part instead...
Last but not least, who can resist Julie Christie, aka Liz. She is Billy's object of desire cum temptation cum salvation, very much in contrast to Billy's inhabited world... simply beautiful. The intro sequence of Liz as she walks along the streets of Bradford is another highlight of the film, undescribable with words. You gotta see it for ya self~
What else can I say about 'Billy Liar'. I guess everyone was once a 'Billy Liar', or still has a Billy Liar in him or herself. Well, at least I can say it for me self. Perhaps on a finer day, I WILL CATCH thee TRAIN to 'London'.......
I give it 9/10 :-)
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