David O’Donoghue reports from the screening of This Sporting Life at the Inaugural Richard Harris International Film Festival.
The second day of the Richard Harris Film Festival played host to the film that the actor referred to as “my Hamlet”, 1963’s This Sporting Life. It was introduced by Peter ‘the claw’ Clohessy, famed Irish rugby International and Harris friend. He spoke about Harris’ love for rugby and his attachment to Munster and Young Munsters especially. Some of the notable attendees at these screening were Richard Harris’ son Damian and his granddaughter Ella Harris.
The film, which stars Harris as rising rugby star Frank Machin, opens with some fantastically kinetic and visceral shots of a rugby game. There couldn’t be an opening more fit for the film, which can be seen primarily as a character study of Frank Machin, a man defined by unrestrained visceral passion and all the banes and boons that come with such a quality.
We see how Machin gets his position on the team after a commotion in a local nightclub, where he fights the captain of the local rugby league team among other players. The captain sees merit in his aggressive and confrontational nature and so Machin plays a trial game.
Machin’s slowly growing success on the rugby field is contrasted with his relationship with his landlady, Margaret Hammond, for whom he clearly has some quite unrequited affection.
A fantastic performance by Rachel Roberts brings nuance and great sympathy to Hammond’s character, who has lost her husband and in her reserved grief plays greatly off Machin. Hammond is quiet and dwells greatly on the past, continuing to keep and polish her late husband’s boots, while Machin is full of fire and bounding with energy from one moment to the next.
In a memorable scene Machin arrives home after having been signed to the league team proper by a Mr Weaver, the team’s owner and the industrialist that Mr Weaver’s husband had worked for before his death in an industrial accident ruled a suicide.
Machin is his usual energetic self, utterly ecstatic at the sum of £1,000 he has received for being signed. His attempts to impress this joy upon his landlady have a degree of success until Hammond realises that the sum Machin received is far in excess of that she was given as compensation for her husband’s death; a complaint that Machin simply cannot understand.
The score of the film is all wonderful crescendos of brass, reflecting the human crescendo that is Machin’s unreserved and impassioned attitude toward life.
As Machin is further absorbed by his own success he is only more greatly frustrated by Ms Hammond’s unavailability as she is the only thing he cannot brutishly take into his position by sheer force of will.
This story of a simple man lost in a world of social nuance that he cannot understand recalls other character studies disguised as sports dramas such as Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and of course the great Raging Bull, and similarly leaves the reader with a sense of pity for a fundamentally flawed and hard to love man. Such is the intensity and nuance of Harris’ performance that This Sporting Life is one of the best examples of why Richard Harris lives on as a legend of Irish acting.
This Sporting Life screened on Saturday, 7th December as part of the Inaugural Richard Harris International Film Festival (6 – 8 December 2013, Limerick)