10 February 2008 | dr_foreman
Dark but Rewarding
"This Sporting Life" is in some ways a sinister version of "Rocky" - a tale of a tough-guy athlete taking his best shot at the big time. But while "Rocky" presents a fairly optimistic view of the world, this film is definitely of a darker nature.
Dark. Yes, that's the key word for "This Sporting Life." The movie weaves a sad tale of poverty, unrequited loves and human failings. It's not entertaining to watch by any means, but if you brace yourself for the film's depressing impact you will probably find it rewarding.
Several commentators on this site have suggested that the movie doesn't work because the central character, Frank Machin - played by an excellent Richard Harris - is too thuggish and unsympathetic. I can't agree with that perspective, however. Machin is a bit of a beast, sure, but he also demonstrates sensitivity (he likes kids!) and tremendous loyalty to the people around him. He makes mistakes and behaves cruelly sometimes, but I think that it's a bit snobbish and bourgeois to dismiss him as a mere thug.
Harris' performance as Machin certainly helps to ground a film that is perhaps too weak on the plot side to be a true four-star classic. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, ranging from Rachel Roberts as the tragic landlady Mrs. Hammand to William ("Doctor Who") Hartnell as the lonely old man, Johnson. The acting all seems naturalistic and believable to me, though I suppose I'm not qualified to judge whether everybody got their regional accents right.
Director Lindsay Anderson, meanwhile, gives the film a bleak, cold and very realistic look. Somehow, he manages to make shadowy suburban streets look like the eeriest settings imaginable, and he also directs the rugby scenes with tremendous violence and energy.
I just wish that "This Sporting Life" was a bit stronger on plot. I'm not exactly sure what it's missing, but I think it's merely excellent rather than a classic. And it's tough to watch such a dark movie that's not quite perfect. Still, I would definitely recommend this to cinema buffs and casual viewers who wouldn't be too put off by the bleakness.