This month marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Billy Liar – a true British classic, and part of the British New Wave, which catapulted the working classes and their “angry young men” onto cinema screens. Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) is most definitely an angry young man. He’s a teenager with a wild imagination, stuck living in small-town Bradford with his parents and working as a clerk in a funeral home.
As the title suggests, Billy is a liar. His lies range from absurd untruths, such as his father losing a leg, to complete manipulations intended to lure impressionable young girls into bed. But he’s not just a liar – he’s also lazy, a thief, and a fantasist. His fantasies are flamboyant escapisms in which Billy imagines himself in positions of power; he’s a war-hero turned dictator of his own made-up country, he’s a brilliant novelist, he’s being cheered by crowds at a political rally and, in one of the best scenes of the film, he machine guns down his parents and his grandmother in the kitchen.
Billy is a strangely endearing character, helped no doubt by the faultless performance by Tom Courtenay. You will him to succeed because of his constant battle against his parents, his boss and his girlfriends to give up his dreams, be responsible, and consign himself to the fact that he is just an ordinary person. But when Billy is offered a chance to escape with Liz (Julie Christie), his free-spirited third girlfriend he just can’t bring himself to do it. He is inexplicably trapped in his entangled web of grim reality and outrageous fantasy. Whatever Billy does, however he ends up, there is no moral judgement made. He is what he is, and that’s what the film manages to portray so cleverly.
Billy Liar is an absolutely brilliant film. It’s perfectly scripted, directed and acted and in many ways still completely relevant – Billy is no different to a modern day teenager, stuck in a limbo between childhood and adulthood, unable to survive alone and yet constantly pressured into growing up. It is a classic British film; a vivid snapshot of post-war Britain and an essential component of the heyday of British cinema; Billy Liar’s charm is endless.
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