The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner Movie Review
Colin Smith, the classic angry young man of disaffected postwar England, puts it all right out there in the film's first line, "Running's always been a big thing in our family, especially running away from the police." Played by a brooding Tom Courtenay, Colin is doing quite a bit of running in general when the police finally catch up with him for breaking into a bakery (a crime that is only mentioned at first, we'll only see it all much later, gradually built up to in flashback). Sent off to a reform school, Colin at first sets himself apart through his sarcasm, the first line of defense for any proper cinematic anti-hero. Despising everyone pretty equally -- especially the whingeing new administrator, spouting new-fangled psychological nonsense that's as condescending as the school's old-fashioned authoritarian rot -- Colin finds a release of sorts in running. It seems a pure thing, especially when he's given leave to go on unsupervised practice runs in the countryside, where he gambols through woods and babbling brooks while jazz tinkles on the soundtrack. Simple and ultimately pointless, it's nevertheless a sight better than his previous life.
Shot in glacial shades of black and white, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is generally aiming for bleakness, especially when concerning the inescapably grotty and low-income nature of Colin's upbringing. We see a small, prefab house in the shadow of a looming factory and ranked townhouses, with younger siblings screaming inside and a mother bitter about life, but hardly about her recently dead husband, whom she valued only for the 500 pounds his death provided her. Colin couldn't care less about the money, he burns some of his share and uses the rest to take a girl to the beach for a weekend. He can barely think about the future, except that at the school he's starting to see that the head administrator has taken a shine to his athletic skills, thinking Colin is his secret weapon to beat a nearby public school, against whom they'll be competing in a mini-Olympic athletic competition.
Courtenay has the perfect look for a man as conflicted as he, his scarecrow gauntness and sarcastic voice (like he was chewing a mouthful of glass) the picture of a man torn between worlds. On the one hand he desires to be free, on the other, he can't imagine selling out to a system that has dehumanized him and those like him for countless years. As powerfully as Richardson (a normally cool and calculating director) and screenwriter Sillitoe convey Colin's antiheroism, though, they can't quite get a grasp on the rest of the film, which shuttles inconclusively between realism and cliché.
An iconic representation of a time, less so now.