Did you know that Albert Finney was young once? Weird, right? He occupies such the Old British Guy post nowadays that his Young British Guy seems like a completely different actor. Time, of course, has a bit to do with that, as Finney’s had a long career full of great roles (Murder on the Orient Express), not-so-great roles (Looker) and, at present, increasingly smaller roles than he deserves (Skyfall). But it’s not just the passage of time that makes a return to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a film I first saw in college, a bit of a jarring experience. That’s because the difference isn’t so much Old British Guy vs. Young British Guy at all — it’s Old, Lovely British Guy vs. Young, Dickhead British Guy.
Come on, you say, that’s simplifying it a bit too much. It certainly is. Finney’s Arthur Seaton, the prototypical angry young man at the center of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, in fact has more than a few responses to such “insults” that approach perfection here. His entire social stance is a refutation of the notion that you or I or Doreen (Arthur’s girlfriend) or Brenda (Arthur’s other girlfriend) or anyone else would presume to know the first thing about him. A bit from his famous soliloquy:
Mam called me barmy when I told her I fell off a gasometer for a bet. But I’m not barmy — I’m a fighting pit-prop that wants a pint of beer, that’s me…but if any knowing bastard says that’s me I’ll tell them I’m a dynamite dealer waiting to blow the factory to kingdom come. I’m me and nobody else. Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not. Because they don’t know a bloody thing about me.
Aside from providing the title for that Arctic Monkeys album, “whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not” is a great little zinger that typifies the whole of the British New Wave/Angry Young Men artistic revolution. You’re more than welcome to travel in Arthur’s circle so long as you don’t try to contain him within that circle. Alan Sillitoe, the film’s screenwriter and author of the original novel, likewise had a label-shunning penchant when it came to critics hailing him as an Angry Young Man. He and John Osborne were very much a part of some kind of shift in social fiction, regardless of what you call it or if you call it anything at all. Osborne’s Look Back in Anger certainly gets credit for being the more original work of the two, but for my money Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is the unsung pinnacle of that monikerless rebellion.
But how do we talk about Arthur Seaton if we can’t talk about Arthur Seaton? How do we figure him out if whatever we peg him as is simply what he’s not? We could follow suit from most of the film’s elder characters and believe Arthur to be wrong, believe him to be what he appears to be, believe him to be a sybaritic and cocksure kid bent on defiance in every form. But one advantage the film has over Sillitoe’s novel is Albert Finney, Young British Guy in one of his first starring roles, and in watching Finney’s interpretation of Arthur we might find Arthur to be more than just a jerk.
This is why it’s so interesting to juxtapose Finney’s early roles with his later ones, or even with the mid-career roles that solidified his status as somewhat of a master. In fact, the youthful actor had a clear knack for the Angry Young Protagonist — he had a part in The Entertainer and the starred in Tom Jones, both written by the aforementioned John Osborne, films which bookend Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and cast Finney as star of a Trilogy of Disgruntled Disillusionment. Later, Finney would play Hercule Poirot and the old storyteller from Big Fish and a family friend of the Bonds in Skyfall. He’d play the noble Ed Mary in Erin Brockovich. These are likable men of compassion. Even Ebenezer Scrooge, a role he filled in Ronald Neame’s 1970 version, lets his heart shine through by the end.
Not so with Arthur. We might understand his plight, despite being unable to label it, but does that make him any more likable? Is he likable at all? At times his cold Nottingham monotone drone recalls that of Alex DeLarge more than anyone else, which is never a comparison that brings compassion or heart to mind. Other times Arthur is like the anti-Marty from Marty: instead of feeling unable to leave home but yearning to find the right woman, Arthur is drawn to the pub with a determination to resist marriage forever. “I’d like to see anybody try to grind me down,” he says. “All I’m out for is a good time. The rest is propaganda.” His stance isn’t cruel, exactly, but it’s definitely antagonistic; at times, no doubt, Arthur is straight-up unlikable.
But Finney lets more through than plain indifference, and at times Saturday Night and Sunday Morning makes Arthur endearing in his most rotten moments. He puts a dead rat in a coworker’s station and gleefully waits across the room to hear her screech; he throws himself down a flight of stairs with little to no explanation. And in Finney’s strongest moment, the tough Arthur attempts to rile up the husband of the woman he’s been sleeping with but simply fails, the man stating that he’ll see Arthur around and leaving quietly. Arthur, ever-confident, seems wholly unsure of himself in that moment after the door closes. That’s what I like most about Finney’s Arthur, and what I miss in most of his do-right heroes: the razor-sharp balancing act between confidence and uncertainty, likability and loathability, rebellion and dickheadedness, right and wrong. I think that’s what Arthur is, for the most part, but then I suppose that’s what he’s not.