UK / 1963
Director: Lindsay Anderson
Writer: David Storey
Cast: Richard Harris, Rachel Roberts, Alan Badel, William Hartnell, Colin Blakely
Richard Harris stars in Lindsay Anderson’s very British portrayal of life in the rugby league world of the ’60s adapted by David Storey from his own novel (Storey also wrote The Changing Room, a play based on the same sport). The film opens with Harris stuck in a dead end job in a pit and lodging with widow Rachel Roberts.
Eager to better himself and impress her, he gets a trial with the local team and is signed up for £1,000 but his aggressiveness on the pitch sees his character change. Eventually Roberts is worn down by him and the pair become a couple, but while she still broods over her lost husband, he parades her around the town like a trophy. Inevitably, they split, but he finds he cannot live without her and returns to find her fatally ill in hospital. Only at the end is he capable of emotion and tenderness rather than the macho player image but by then, it is too late…
At the core of the film is the superbly realised relationship between Harris and Roberts, and Anderson’s incisive charting of a doomed affair against the backdrop of sport, told in a picaresque style while retaining the essential drama.
Harris and Roberts were nominated for Oscars, rare indeed at that time for a British film about a British sport, and she went on to win a BAFTA for her role, leaving Harris to pick up the best actor award at Cannes. With the strong support cast, This Sporting Life isn’t just about sport but also about emotion, denial and relationships and still carries a strong resonance today.