To mark the 50th anniversary of John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (scripted by Keith Waterhouse from his own novel), a digitally restored edition of the film is released next week on DVD and Blu-ray. Dwarling, it’s wonderful. Not just the sorts of bits-and-bobs that augment any reissue – interviews with the film’s stars, Tom Courtenay and Helen Fraser, and with the latter-day filmmaker Richard Ayoade, whose debut feature Submarine was influenced strongly by Schlesinger’s picture. But Billy Liar itself has stood up spectacularly well.
It’s the director’s most assured work, and it includes Courtenay’s greatest performance. The young actor balances zestiness and frustration, levity and rage, and never soft-pedals his character’s more unsympathetic tendencies. For those unfamiliar with the film or novel, I should say that William Fisher (Courtenay) is a discontented undertaker bristling at his drab Yorkshire life and unimaginative elders, but doomed never to quite summon the guts to leave it all behind. He wants to be a comedy writer, and certainly has the spiky wit, but he’s on the outside of the showbusiness world, looking in; he resents his responsibilities but has somehow got himself involved with three women, the brightest of whom, Liz (Julie Christie), represents an escape route from his life that he may not be brave enough to take. Most of his energy is expended on cultivating a rich interior fantasy life, where he enjoys prestige, wealth and fame – but even this is shot through with rancour, satire and class resentment.
It made an illuminating double-bill for me this week with the tale of another mentally-anguished Bill: It’s Such a Beautiful Day, the debut feature from the animator Don Hertzfeldt. The film explores in painstaking but dispassionate detail the daily life and warped imagination of Bill, a crudely-drawn stick man overwhelmed by his own illness and the world around him.
Watching the movie, which is only just over an hour long, is a rich and exhausting experience. The dispersed frame favoured by Hertzfeldt – with the screen separating into three or more panels in which individual actions unfold – provides exotic food for the eyes, with the surreal spectacle of Bill’s life incorporating live-action footage or abstract imagery. A less impressive device, I felt, was the dry, self-consciously amused and ceaseless narration; listening to the shopping-list of wacky sights witnessed or imagined by Bill (birds squawking into mobile phones, a boy with aluminium hooks for arms), I felt strongly as though I were eavesdropping on David Sedaris reciting a Surrealist’s shopping-list. It seemed heavy on affectation in a way that the film’s visuals were not. But there’s no denying that Hertzfeldt has a voice and a vision, or that It’s Such a Beautiful Day is unique. I think William Fisher, wherever he may be, would appreciate it greatly.
“Billy Liar” is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday. “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” is at London’s ICA Cinema from 3-10 May, before touring various venues nationwide.