British cinema in the early 1960’s pulsed with the ambitious energy, on the screen and off, of young men—not angry, necessarily, but certainly restless. The period’s defining screen performances include Laurence Harvey in Room at the Top, Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (and then in Tom Jones) and Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and, most memorably, in Billy Liar.
Billy Liar is one of the great movies of the 1960s, but it has been, in this country at least, maddeningly elusive. Previous video versions brutally cropped John Schlesinger’s gorgeous Cinemascope composition, in effect tearing the film’s characters out of context, which this handsome new print happily restores. This is no cinéaste’s formalist quibble. The film’s wide perspective and deep focus have an ethical import as well: they bestow on narrow, constricted lives the dignity and beauty of art.
Which is, in a way, what Billy Fisher tries to do. Hemmed in by his anxious, ignorant parents and the absurdity of his job at a company that sells “funeral furnishings,” Billy dreams he is the ruler of a fantasy kingdom called Ambrosia. He also compulsively spins out more homely untruths, stringing along two fiancées, pilfering promotional calendars from the office and embroidering tall tales about his family circumstances. He fancies himself a writer and pretends that he has been offered a job writing gags for a television personality named Danny Boon, who shows up in Billy’s north country hometown for a supermarket opening (and who, judging from his performance there, could use some help).
Billy Liar, adapted by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse from their play (which was based on Mr. Waterhouse’s novel), is in part an exuberant satire of a society caught between its old ways and the urge to modernize. (All around Billy, buildings are being demolished, and new ones spring up to replace them.) These poles are represented by Billy’s bosses, the doddering Councilor Duxbury and the energetic Shadrack, who prophesies a day when the dead will be buried in sleek plastic coffins. (Shadrack’s hymn to plastic may remind you of a piece of advice Dustin Hoffman’s character hears from one of his parents’ insufferable friends in The Graduate: “I have just one word for you, young man. Plastics.”)
But for all its brilliant comedy, the movie is also a poignant study of indecision. The world seems to offer the tantalizing possibility of freedom, embodied by Liz—played by Julie Christie—a girl who, in Billy’s envious description: “Goes where she feels like. She enjoys herself. She’s crazy.” Billy, for all his wild imaginings, may be too afraid to escape from the drab reality that imprisons him.
What is remarkable about Billy Liar is that it recognizes this drabness without succumbing to it. The hard, sad edge of Mr. Schlesinger’s realism, displayed earlier in A Kind of Loving and subsequently in Darling and Midnight Cowboy, never leaves you depressed. Although saturated with the cultural peculiarities of its time and place, this film is too alive to be a mere period piece. Mr. Courtenay’s performance, all nerves, ears and desperate rapid-fire charm, makes you worry about what will become of this lost boy. Ms. Christie, for her part, is a limpid icon of rebellious glamour. In spite of its bitter edge, Billy Liar is pure Ambrosia.
A.O. Scott is a film critic for the New York Times, where this review first appeared on November 17, 2000. Reprinted with permission of the author.