Finney was the face of the vibrant new wave of working-class postwar British cinema, and maintained a fierce vitality in his distinguished later performances
From moon-faced youth to weatherbeaten later years, Albert Finney was an almighty force on screen: a clenched fist of physicality, a battering ram of uningratiating power, almost priapic with defiant confidence, with the battle-readiness of a prop forward or sumo wrestler. His presence was very different from the long-limbed spindliness or feline charm of contemporaries such as Peter O’Toole, Tom Courtenay and Terence Stamp, those other young lions of postwar British cinema who showed that regional and working-class voices had a new, real power. And, in retirement, Salford-born Finney lived long enough to hear his name invoked as a lost hero by those enraged that, in the 21st century, working-class actors were being marginalised in Britain once again.
Finney was a unique actor, although it was his fate to be compared, wonderingly, to other people. Ken Tynan famously reeled away from Finney’s Rada graduation show calling the teenager a new Spencer Tracy. Later in his theatrical career, he was dubbed a new Olivier. I would say that he was Britain’s Jean Gabin. But none of that is quite right. He was a brilliant and utterly distinctive actor, deeply rooted in a theatrical tradition but capable of naturalistic performances, a product of Britain’s vital new “kitchen-sink” cinema. And as a producer, Finney gave early breaks to Tony Scott and Stephen Frears, helped get Lindsay Anderson’s If… off the ground, and was a driving force behind Mike Leigh’s first feature, Bleak Moments.
Finney made his sensational breakthrough in 1960 in Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, playing Arthur Seaton, a tough, good-looking young womaniser working in a factory, in permanent revolt against the pomposity and hypocrisy of a society determined to keep the likes of him in their place. Finney fused lust, boredom and anger into a single emotion. Later, he was the ne’er-do-well hero in Tom Jones – John Osborne’s 1963 adaptation of the 18th-century Henry Fielding novel, also directed by Richardson – rollicking around England with many New Wave mannerisms of freezeframing and fourth-wall-breaking.