Albert Finney: the most almighty physical screen presence

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.

Sensational … Finney as Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.  

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.

It was this multi-Oscar-winning film that made Finney rich and famous, but it was atypical. His broad, open, likable face here did not feature the compressed emotion of his other roles, although the turn of his mouth had a certain sensual derision that was to become a fierce line of pain and rage in the famous performances of his later period: the doughty old lawyer in Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000), playing opposite Julia Roberts; and his superb turn as the agonised, careworn father of criminals in Sidney Lumet’s 2007 thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.


Finney was brilliant at conveying the state of being toughly unimpressed with everything around him. Especially in his younger roles, he reminded me of Bill Atkinson, the fierce-looking lodger in Kingsley Amis’s novel Lucky Jim: “Dixon liked and revered him for his air of detesting everything that presented itself to his senses, and not meaning to let this detestation become staled by custom.”

Finney in 1963 filming Tom Jones with Susannah York.

At the end of the 1960s, Finney had his single film directing credit: Charlie Bubbles, written for the screen by Shelagh Delaney. He also starred in the film, giving one of his most captivating and revealing performances as Charlie, a hugely successful writer who returns in triumph to his hometown of Salford in a Rolls Royce, looking warily discontented with what he finds in memory lane – and with himself. There is an extraordinary, dreamlike scene in which, with an American photographer (an early role for Liza Minnelli), he drives around the vast, demolished gloaming where the old Victorian back-to-backs had been pulled down, and a brass marching band turn up out of nowhere. Other scenes show Charlie in a restaurant where an old waiter poignantly remembers his father, and also show him going to Old Trafford for a Manchester United match.

Charlie Bubbles depicts how Britain was changing and what sudden, dizzying 60s-style success really felt like for Finney (and Delaney). And the scenes showing Charlie rowing with his ex-wife (Billie Whitelaw) are weirdly like in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. In the old days, a bloke might be off gallivanting down the pub; now he’s off gallivanting in London with his fancy showbusiness friends. The sexual politics are the same. There is incidentally a bizarre scene in which Charlie and an old pal (Colin Blakely) amiably slosh food over each other in a posh London restaurant. It is far more interesting than the (overrated) sexy-eating scene in Tom Jones.

Finney as Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (Sidney Lumet, 1974).

Finney’s screen career continued into the 70s, though without the zeitgeist thrill of the earlier decade. His most successful role of this decade was probably Hercule Poirot in Sidney Lumet’s all-star hit version of the Agatha Christie mystery Murder on the Orient Express (1975), which taught the film and television worlds what a very reliable moneyspinner Agatha Christie could be. Finney made Poirot a gimlet-eyed, severe, martinet figure, rather different from the more musing and cerebral Poirots of David Suchet and Kenneth Branagh.

One of my favourite Finney performances comes from the beginning of the next decade: the once raved-over but now underappreciated Shoot the Moon (1982), directed by Alan Parker and scripted by veteran dramatist and screenwriter Bo Goldman. It is a post-Bergman marital-anguish drama of the sort that hasn’t been fashionable for many a day. Finney plays George, a colossally successful writer, semi-openly having an affair, a fact that causes torment to his wife, Faith (Diane Keaton), and their four children. Emotional meltdown ensues. It has such a virile and vehement turn from Finney: his face is creased with agony, self-loathing and an awful kind of self-control that presages a yet larger explosion, which is to come with the film’s famous firework-display of destructive rage over a new tennis court.

Finney with Tom Courtenay in The Dresser (Ronald Harwood, 1983) .
 Slightly mad … Finney as ‘Sir’, with Tom Courtenay, in The Dresser. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

One of Finney’s great later performances is his glorious leading turn – and distinctively comic one, in a career not noted for comedy – in The Dresser (1983). This was adapted by Ronald Harwood from his stage play, which was based on his own experiences as a long-suffering personal assistant, or “dresser”, to the renowned Shakespearean actor Sir Donald Wolfit. Finney plays the imperious, mercurial and slightly mad “Sir”, as he leads a threadbare rep company around wartime Britain, and Tom Courtenay plays the camp dresser, the only man who can chivvy, bully and wheedle Sir into his costume, and out of whatever crazy or despondent mood he is in, in time for curtain up. Finney and Courtenay might easily have swapped roles for the film, though I think it was well cast this way around.
The outrageously funny and hammy performances by Sir as Othello or Lear – all booming, screeching and whooping vowels – are supposed to show us what an old-fashioned and obsolete acting style that is. But perhaps it was not so far from the continuing Shakespearean tradition in which Finney appeared, night after night, because his stage career carried on alongside his screen work. Unlike Olivier, Finney never committed Shakespearean roles to the screen. Yet The Dresser, however cartoonish, gives us an interesting insight into Finney’s own classical acting persona. Perhaps the off-stage Sir in his dressing room – florid, verbose, panicky but often witty and relaxed – is a hint of the onstage Finney of that time. And maybe Sir is someone whom Finney did not himself despise. This quixotic old-stager performance is not far from his excellent interpretation of Winston Churchill in the 2002 TV movie The Gathering Storm.

An awful lot of flavour and texture has left British acting with the departure of Albert Finney.

Source: Albert Finney: the most almighty physical screen presence | Peter Bradshaw | Film | The Guardian

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