The British New Wave of the late '50s and early '60s, much like its more loudly heralded French counterpart, arose from filmmakers who rejected the bourgeois timidity of their national cinema and strove to liberate the form. Alongside fellow directors like Karel Reisz (Saturday Night And Sunday Morning) and Tony Richardson (The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner), Lindsay Anderson released a "Free Cinema" manifesto which advocated productions outside the system—made on the cheap and in black-and-white—that cast an eye on the ordinary struggles of working-class Brits. These "kitchen-sink" melodramas would henceforth become a hallmark of British cinema, and none was better than Anderson's 1963 debut feature, This Sporting Life, which is all raw nerves and volcanic emotion.
As a miner turned rugby star in the grim town of Wakefield, a young Richard Harris seems like the bridge between Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, a portrait of volatile, inarticulate masculinity that's just shy of animal magnetism. For no reason other than simple envy, Harris picks a fight with members of the local rugby team, whose arrogant owner (Alan Badel) is impressed enough by his ferocity to give him a tryout. Harris soon becomes a sensation on the field for his bruising style, but his newfound riches and popularity don't translate into happiness in his romantic life. He falls in love with landlady Rachel Roberts, a recent widow who eventually submits to his advances, but treats him coldly—partly out of bereavement, but mostly due to his coarseness and lack of sensitivity.
Though Anderson would veer into full-blown surrealism later with the better-known If…. and O, Lucky Man!, he devotes This Sporting Life to an unvarnished realism that had little precedent. At the same time, he experiments freely with time, telling Harris' story through densely interwoven flashbacks and associative edits that keep the film from shrinking into four-walled histrionics. His poetic montages of rugby action reduce this gentleman's game to its brutal essence, which then fade seamlessly to Harris' failed attempts to wield the same power on the domestic pitch. Harris' haunted eyes carry a wealth of feeling, but when he finally brings himself to say, "I love you," he gets the contempt he deserves.
Key features: A solid commentary track by Anderson scholar Paul Ryan, with some added musings from 75-year-old Sporting Life screenwriter and novelist David Storey, on disc one. The supplemental second disc has a pair of formative Anderson documentary shorts, a 30-minute profile, and the director's poignant hourlong swansong, 1993's Is That All There Is?