A Look Inside the Kitchen Sink Realism of the British New Wave

I’ve been wanting to write about the British New Wave for a while now, but I could only do that once I had seen a significant amount of movies from that period – a challenge that has been both pleasant and surprising once you discover the masterpieces that came out from that era. Known to be the “nouvelle vague” of England in a time where the world was changing, specially cinema itself, the British new wave happened from the late 50s to the end of the 60s with the concept of the kitchen sink realism, a term used to categorize the British films that talked about the lives of the ordinary working men from England, focusing on themes such as poverty, abortion, drunkenness, homosexuality and the most famous one, “young angry men” who were unsatisfied with their way of living life. More than that, the British new wave is composed by a melancholic black and white photography that reminds a mixture of noir films with the French poetic realism from the 30s by showing us the simple households and brick factory walls that covered most buildings from northern England. Here are some films to get to know this period better.

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A Taste of Honey (1961) by Tony Richardson

Tony Richardson was one of the names that helped shaping the British new wave period with extremely important titles across his career. A Tate of Honey is one of them. It may not be my favorite film from the period, but its importance can’t be taken for granted. Adapted from the play by Shelagh Delaney, the film tells the story of a 17-year-old girl who gets pregnant from a black sailor and starts living with a gay man after she is dumped by him. Their uncommon relationship and the extremely poor conditions they live in were one the many things that defined the kitchen sink realism, resulting in four BAFTA awards, including Best Film. It’s considered by the BFI one of the best British films of all times.

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Room at the Top (1959) by Jack Clayton

Even though people consider Look Back In Anger one of the first films of this period, I would recommend Room at the Top instead for having a more interesting story and development than the other film as it is basically the character of Richard Burton screaming and complaining for more than 90 minutes in a roll. This Academy Award Winner picture by Jack Clayton, however, is way more compelling by telling the story of a young man named Joe who moves to Yorkshire and falls in love for a rich girl while he has an affair with an older woman. The concepts of the division of social classes is the main subject of the movie and the way this division marks the characters throughout the story ends up having drastic consequences on Joe’s life and everybody around him, resulting in a surprising and uncomfortable ending.

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Victim (1961) by Basil Dearden

Probably the most different film from the list and one of the darkest ones, Victim was the first film that mentioned the word “homosexual” on screen. Shot in a time where homosexuality in England was forbidden, the film shines a light for exposing the bribes happening with gay men by telling a story of a famous lawyer who decides to find the man who was intimidating his ex-lover who ended up killing himself. His search does not only expose a major common scheme against homosexuals at the time but also ends up costing his career. More important than that, Victim is one of the first films to portray gay men not as a disease or an obscene gesture, but people who no matter if they got married to women and have children, they will always prefer men. This may sound somewhat dated nowadays, but being one of the first films to portray gay men as normal people in such a dark period, Victim becomes an extremely important film, especially for the way it was made.

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The L-Shaped Room (1962) by Bryan Forbes

Jane is a young french pregnant woman who goes to London to escape from her parents. She rents a room at the top of a poor building with cockroaches on her bed and a hole at the wall where her neighbor can spy on her. She doesn’t know if she should have an abortion or not but the fact that everybody seems to get horrified once they discover she is married and single, she decides to keep the baby to herself. That is just one of the few problems she has once she starts going out with a writer that lives in the same building as her, and she gets to know the rest of the tenants. Based on the best-seller book of the same name by Lynne Raid Banks, The L-Shaped Room is a beautiful and romantic story about two people who are at the end of their 30s and are still struggling with money and their place in the status quo of conservative London.

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A Kind of Loving (1962) by John Schlesinger

Another movie that deals with pregnancy outside marriage, A Kind of Loving is a beautiful and touching story of two ordinary young people who fall in love and end up having a baby after they have sex. The most incredible thing about this film is how John Schlesinger portrays these two young people, played by Alan Bates and June Ritchie, who loses their innocence throughout 120 minutes of film, and besides being two good people, they get bitter because of life and the circumstances they find themselves in. It’s a very hopeful film comparing to the other ones from this list, and definitely, a must watch!

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Saturday Night Sunday Morning (1960) by Karel Reisz

Also known to be the film that inspired the title of Arctic Monkey’s first album, Saturday Night Sunday Morning probably has one of the most incredible characters I’ve seen on a film. Albert Finney plays Arthur, a working man from Nottingham that doesn’t care about anything and prefers to spend all his money on pubs and having sex than finding a girl to get married. Of course that all these decisions end up hunting him down but more than a film about a man finding trouble on the streets is a film about a man who demands more of his life and doesn’t know how to deal with reality but choosing to express himself through violence. This is a very rough film but a very touching one, making Saturday Night Sunday Morning one of my favorites.

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This Sporting Life (1963) by Lindsay Anderson

And speaking of violence, This Sporting Life is a marvelous Lindsay Anderson film about a young violent working man from Yorkshire whose violence ends up making him recruited for a rugby team. With that, he decides to follow a career to try to impress his landlady, a woman he is in love with but despises him. This film reminds me a lot of Rober Wise’s Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) for telling a story about a man who is forced to do something he doesn’t like and by being famous for it, he decides to conquer the world to achieve happiness, but as a result, they only find despair. Richard Harris gives an outstanding performance for playing Frank as Paul Newman in the latter. Watch them both, even though Somebody Up There Likes Me is way older.

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The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner (1962) by Tony Richardson

This was my first contact with the British new wave and Tom Courtenay, which made me fall in love for them as soon as this film was over. Being a beautiful coming of age story set on a reform school, the movie tells the story of Colin, a rebellious teenager who is sent to a reform school after he is caught stealing. At the reform school, he remembers about the days when he was free while he gets the school’s governor attention for being good at running. With that, Tony Richardson builds a beautiful and touching story about a troublemaker who doesn’t want anything from his life and is set to fight against the whole world.

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Kes (1969) by Ken Loach

Also known for being “the last British new wave movie ever made”, this Kean Loach’s debut is another extremely beautiful and touching coming of age story about a rebellious kid who wants nothing out of life except to play with a falcon that he becomes friends with. The way Ken Loach shoots this film, especially in color, gives an extremely raw realism to what we’re watching, feeling like the film is actually a documentary and we’re just following the story of this little boy. It also reminds me a little bit of Billy Elliot by showing how his life’s purpose ends being only the falcon and everybody seems to be against him.

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Billy Liar (1963) by John Schlesinger

Being my favorite British new wave film and probably one of my favorite movies of all times, Billy Liar is a delicious, incredible and funny story about a young Englishman who lives so deep inside his imaginary world that he ends up fooling everyone around him. It’s an extremely poetic film and what I love the most about this is that even after all the problems this character brings himself into, he still decides to daydream instead of growing up, which is after all, all we’ve always wanted. We’re all in some way or the other, this young man portrayed by an incredible performance by Tom Courtenay.