Despite its title, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner doesn’t really concern itself with loneliness and the only long distance running is secondary in the narrative. The film’s really something of a social piece, made rather conspicuous in the third act, with the comparison between the public school and the reform school. That moment, with the public school students appearing to be rubes, seems a little off. Wouldn’t they be wary of the delinquents?
The film’s about a teenage delinquent (twenty-five year-old, and it shows, Tom Courtenay) who proves to be an excellent runner at reform school. Headmaster Michael Redgrave (in a throwaway part) has a big thing for athletics, having been a runner in his younger days, and Courtenay becomes his new star. But the majority of the narrative is flashback, leading up to Courtenay being caught and sent to the school. His crime is identified, in a narratively flimsy scene, when he talks to the school counselor. The counselor, who practically opens the film, is a fine example of Loneliness‘s biggest problem–it forgets about people.
With an hour and forty minute running time, one might think Loneliness had time to keep track of its principal cast, but the counselor is the first to go, followed by James Bolam, who appears in the modern action from the flashback without any solid narrative reason. So much of the film is spent in flashback, with Courtenay really doing well (if looking eight years too old) in those scenes. But it’s also in those scenes where the film reveals itself–the story’s not about a teenage delinquent off at reform school, it’s about a son adrift following his father’s death–and the reform school scenes can’t really compete, because they’re disconnected from that character.
The end, of course, tries to bring everything together, but Richardson’s style–five second repeats of earlier scenes–doesn’t work at all. Richardson’s direction here is mostly solid, even excellent, but the little flourishes (the film uses a jazz score to poor effect) distract from his otherwise fine work. There are some beautiful long shots of the training runs, with Walter Lassally’s black and white cinematography exquisite. A scene at the beach, with Courtenay and girlfriend Topsy Jane, is also very well done; Richardson can’t quite marry the technical quality and the story, however.
Alan Stillitoe adapted his own short story, but the content–and the way so much is left out–suggests he added material to make up for feature length. The result, combined with the seemingly overpowering urge to make a statement, is a confused film. It’s interesting technically (and historically), competently acted, but entirely dispassionate. Richardson’s going for a certain amount of distance, but he never quite makes the case of Courtenay’s character deserving our attention. At home, with the death of the father, definitely; at the reform school, not so much, which might be why those scenes become less and less prevalent as the running time progresses.
Produced and directed by Tony Richardson; screenplay by Alan Stilltoe, based on his short story; director of photography, Walter Lassally; edited by Antony Gibbs; music by John Addison; production designer, Ralph W. Brinton; released by British Lion-Columbia Ltd.
Starring Michael Redgrave (Ruxton Towers Reformatory governor), Tom Courtenay (Colin Smith), Avis Bunnage (Mrs. Smith), Alec McCowen (Brown, House Master), James Bolam (Mike), Joe Robinson (Roach), Dervis Ward (Detective), Topsy Jane (Audrey) and Julia Foster (Gladys).