For true cinephiles, one of the greatest pleasures of watching movies is seeing an actor in the prime of his youth after you had primarily known him for roles that he had done much later in his career, if not the very end of his career. British actor Richard Harris was a performer I knew most readily for his role as Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator and as Albus Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films, before he passed away. He was a man in the twilight of his life in both of those roles, and had I not been informed before hand, I would have never believed the extraordinary performance in the film I just watched, This Sporting Life, was him 50 years ago, in his debut role. Knowing that this was his debut film though helps to explain just why he had such a magnificent acting career.
This Sporting Life is a character study wrapped in political commentary played as a classical tragedy, and while it has several flaws that keep it from perfection, for a film from the early 1960’s, this is a dark, gritty treatise on social class and ambition that serves as a great ancestor to the modern character study classics such as There Will Be Blood or A Single Man. It tells the story of Frank Machin (Richard Harris), a coal miner who finds sudden fame and limited wealth when he is signed to be a member of his town’s prestigious rugby team. However, despite finding success on the rugby field, Frank has to deal with the fact that his station in life has basically remained exactly the same despite bringing money and prestige to those that own the team. At the same time, he must deal with his feelings towards his widowed landlord (Rachel Roberts) that she does not reciprocate, and over the course of the film’s not insignificant length, Frank spirals into a world of depression, abuse, and violence. It’s heavy stuff, but played marvelously well.
I can’t begin to say enough great things about Harris’s performance in this. It was very Brando-esque, and I can almost imagine in my head an American version of the film where Brando plays Frank’s part but plays something like football or hockey instead of rugby. Someone should have jumped on that idea. While Harris occasionally has some strange enunciation to his words, his performance is full of the sort of raw emotion, passion, and ready to explode intensity that you only see from greats like Brando, De Niro, or Day Lewis. It was awe-inspiring. His co-lead, Rachel Roberts, was also magnificent as his land lord who is nearly as damaged mentally as Frank is. They have a strangely powerful chemistry together and while their romance was quite disturbing to behold (especially the scene that bordered on rape), it was also compelling in the way the best tragic love stories are.
If you like sports movies, you need to check this one out. If you like dark character studies, you need to check this one out. If you like master classes on acting prowess, you need to check this one out. It runs a little long and some scenes were probably unnecessary but that doesn’t stop this from being a great film. This is easily one of the best sports movies that I’ve watched in a good long while, and while it isn’t one of the greatest character studies of all time, it’s still fantastic. For those who are concerned that since it’s so old it couldn’t be nearly as dark as I claim it is, you’ll just have to trust me on that.
Final Score: A-