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. Continue reading

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