Directed by Karel Reisz
The United Kingdom
Brenda: You know the trouble with you? You don't know the difference between right and wrong. And I don't think you ever will.
Arthur Seaton: Maybe I won't. But I don't want anybody to teach me, either.
It's rare that a movie manages to distill its entire essence into a single scene. Casablanca (1942) comes to mind. The final scene where Humphrey Bogart looks into Ingrid Bergman's eyes on the airport tarmac and says, “Here's looking at you, kid,” somehow seems to contain the entire film's tragic message of the importance of the greater good over personal desire. I can only imagine how many film students must have watched this scene and been envious of how so much could be contained in so few strips of celluloid. But if it is rare for a movie to contain one defining scene, it is even rarer when a movie manages to distill the essence of its genre into one scene. The British film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning manages to do this within its first five minutes.
We see a young machinist named Arthur Seaton working at a factory in Nottingham. A quintessential British “angry young man” he is furious at his lot in life. He scowls at his fellow machinists, many of whom are left over from World War Two. Staring at them in contempt, we hear an internal monologue where he accuses them of being “ground down.” Ha! He'd like to see anybody do the same to him. He continues working for the rest of his shift, leaves the factory, and goes to the local pub.
That may not seem like very important. But it summarizes the entire philosophy of the “kitchen sink dramas” and the British New Wave: an irreparable distinction between the War generations and their children. And that is how we find Arthur Seaton, played by an indomitable Albert Finney, in this small industrial town. Openly in contempt for the older generation, he is completely obsessed with himself. His entire goal in life is to not have one. He is a living contradiction to the men and women who survived the Second World War who were brought up with the knowledge that they would have to sacrifice, slave, and even perish for the nation's welfare. The destroyed buildings have been rebuilt, the international treaties have been signed, and fiery death no longer falls nightly from the sky, so why should he have to worry about anybody else?
So, he goes about causing havoc on his free weekends. Sometimes he just gets drunk and thrown out of bars. Sometimes he shoots old ladies with an air-gun. Sometimes he goes fishing. But mostly, he runs about trying to make up for his time in the factories with as much crazy behavior as possible. Understand, Arthur Seaton is not channeling Alex from A Clockwork Orange, he is merely a frustrated man with no outlet for his feelings. He is not some kind of deluded metaphor for the human id, but instead represents an entire generation of men and women. But that's not to say that he doesn't act on his impulses. During the course of the film, he will court (and sleep with) two different women. His relationships with them may take up the majority of the film, but don't let that fool you. This is Arthur Seaton's film. The two girls just happen to be in it.
But perhaps I should tell you about the two girls. The first is named Brenda. They are having an affair that has been going on for some time now. The problem is that she is the wife of one of Arthur's co-workers. She also has two children. It may seem strange that Arthur would want such an older woman. My thought is that maybe he is sleeping with her as a sort of passive aggressive resistance against her husband. He certainly doesn't love her. But we will get to that in a moment.
The second girl is Doreen, a younger woman, who he meets at a bar. Apparently forgetting that he is already embroiled in one affair, he hops into bed with her. One wonders if he has repeated this ritual more than once. He seems accustomed to it. The only problem is that one day Brenda comes to him and tells him that she is pregnant. And yes, it is his. Now we reach the turning point of the film where we truly get a sense of Arthur's personality. He hurriedly encourages her to get an abortion. At first, Brenda is hesistant because she truly has feelings for him. Then it dawns upon her that now she represents a future. A future with a loving wife and child, but a future nonetheless. The threat of responsibility and personal commitment has effectively stripped him of affection for her. So, she disappointedly agrees.
As luck (and fate?) should have it, Brenda's husband discovers what has happened. In retaliation, his brother (a soldier) and one of his brothers in arms attacks Arthur and viciously beats him. There is not much left to tell concerning the plot. Those looking for a serious or satisfying ending will be disappointed. Arthur simply goes back to work, but not before discussing marriage and a possible future with Doreen. I'm going to stop talking about the plot now because I have told you everything that you need to know about it. Life for Arthur will simply go on, whether he wants it to or not.
If this movie is judged on plot alone, it might seem rather inconsequential. But Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a touchstone film in British cinema history. It was one of the first “kitchen sink dramas” a sub-genre of British film that focused on the lower, working classes and wasn't afraid to approach harsh social problems. It could be called neorealist if one wanted. Much of the filming was done on location in Nottingham. It dealt with issues of sex and abortion in a way that had never been done before in British cinema. In fact, the scene where Arthur wakes up on Sunday morning in bed with his mistress was the first time that extra-marital sex had ever been depicted in British cinema. The original script contained swear words and dialogue that had to be deleted from the finished product. There is a constant eye for the real, the authentic, the truthful in this film. It doesn't shy away when the subject matter gets difficult. Yes, one could call it neorealist, but it probably wouldn't be a good idea.
It breaks one of neorealism's most sacred rules: the use of non-professional actors. Albert Finney is the lifeblood of this movie. His performance is reminiscent of Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953). When Finney says, “Whatever people say I am, that's what I'm not,” he sounds just as cock sure and arrogant as when Brando says, “Whaddya got?” While there would be many kitchen sink dramas in the future, some better, some worse, none of them would contain a performance as charismatic as Finney's. It is remarkable to see him in such an early role. It is a wonder that he had any energy left at all by the time he made classics such as The Dresser (1983) and Under the Volcano (1984). But that is the charm of Finney. He was always able to project himself into any role that he wanted. Maybe that was why he was perfect as the voice of a generation that had nowhere to run to but into themselves.