“Look Back in Anger” became a part of stage history as much for the thumb it stuck in the eye of the Establishment, theatrical as well as social, as for the bitterness that flows from Jimmy Porter’s mouth for two nearly uninterrupted hours. But much like Tennessee Williams’ eerily comparable “A Streetcar Named Desire”– which had brought the revolution to Broadway nearly a decade earlier — the rancid sexual politics of John Osborne’s play can make it rough going today.
To work, “Look Back” demands an actor who can combine ferocity and sexual charisma, as Richard Burton did in the play’s unforgettable 1958 film adaptation.
Kenneth Branagh has many gifts, but that rare fusion is not among them, and for that reason alone this 1989 revival makes no case for the play or for the actor (as the London critics accurately pointed out at the time).
Branagh delivers the speeches with the same clipped clarity he brings to Shakespeare, and his mouth can narrow into a menacing slot, spitting out words with the efficiency of a Vegas one-armed bandit. But his face has no life written on it — certainly not the tough life that Jimmy Porter has lived; it has the softness of the shaded upper class. He’s more Danny Kaye in a Walter Mitty nightmare than Burton.
On the other hand, Emma Thompson’s Alison — wan, limp-haired, haunted, but as much in Jimmy’s thrall as Stella is in Stanley’s — is right on the money. Ditto Siobhan Redmond as the girlfriend who temporarily takes Alison’s place in the Porter bed, and Gerard Horan as Jimmy’s buddy Cliff.
But they’re not enough to recapture the original combustiveness that made a not very good play so explosive. Except for those moments when the camera conspires with Thompson to reveal Alison’s sorry anguish, it’s not very good TV, either.