I hadn’t anticipated rating this one so highly. Perhaps because of Tony Richardson’s career peaking shortly afterwards and then going into a long decline. What makes this film is Tom Courtenay’s performance as Colin, the long distance runner of the title. He is searingly brilliant, within the confines of his role as a down at heel working class lad. Colin is a smouldering fire of sullenness, resentment and incivility: the angriest young man in a scenario stocked with them: the borstal. Courtenay’s eyes and cheekbones, alone present an epitome of rebellion.
The plot straddles two time-frames: the “now”, of life in the borstal and the Governor’s project to channel Colin’s rebellion into the outlet of athletics. And the “before”; flashbacks to Colin’s family and emotional life in Nottingham, and the background to his incarceration. This takes up most of the centre of the film; it’s quite grim: the father dying of industrial disease, the mother already has moved on emotionally: while her husband lies bedridden, her mind is on her fancy man, the children that are still growing up and the materialism that is the only release. With all his disgust and resentment at this world Colin, even as the oldest, is just a bit-part within this matriarchal scene. Lacking inspiration and unwilling to look for or accept an escape, his frustrations relieve themselves in petty crime, which in turn give do give him the means to escape from Nottingham for a day or two: to attract a girl, to treat her, to make love.
The “now”, presents the clash of underclass rebellion against the professionals of the prison service and the world of incarceration: paternalistic velvet around iron brutality. The brutality is through the warders and other staff: cruelty in behaviour and physically intimidating. The paternalism is mainly through the Governor who fulfils his responsibilities towards rehabilitation through noblesse oblige. Thus Colin, with his outsider mien, is immediately tagged as a suitable case for the Governor’s schemes. Clever enough to accept this patronage as a way out of his share of hard labour, Colin is given gardening duties and is allowed to go for cross-country runs, which cue in the flashbacks.
Eventually, all this concludes in the cross country challenge, where the Governor’s project resolves in the only way his patriarchal paternalism can: in a race between the borstal boys and public schoolboys. The ending manages to be both an agonising anti-climax and a glorious climax: one of the best “fuck-off”s on film. Colin’s refusal to surrender his integrity, even if it means continuing to destroy his few opportunities in society and life, is both tragic and triumphant.
I don’t think this film has dated too much, in fact it’s very watchable indeed. Some of the tricks Richardson uses in the home life sequences haven’t aged well (I’m thinking of when Colin and Mike steal the car, which seems to me to be too trad-50s British rather than new wave) and the Governor’s characterization and his exploitation of the opposite ends of British social life for his own ends is quite heavy handed (Michael Redgrave is good though, as you’d expect). Walter Lassally’s photography is excellent, in particular the contrasts between the grey, drab and miserable city and the clear, sunlit woods that Colin passes through.
The main thing about The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is its theme of British society and class: how the only emotions that Colin has developed are negative ones, nurtured by his environment. In response he has only sullen anger, jaded sarcasm and resentment to give. It’s a horribly brutal theme and not one, in spite of the working class becoming more upwardly mobile in the fifty years since, that has been fully addressed.