Sad To See You Leaving 2014: Richard Attenborough

by George_East on December 31, 2014

Richard AttenboroughWe came to see him as the luvvie of all luvvies.  Like Melvyn Bragg but only more affected.  And that is a sad thing because Dickie Attenborough was an extraordinary man.  It is hard to imagine British cinema without him.

He started out with a reputation as far from the establishment figure he became as to be imagine.  He made his name playing cowards and spivs.   In David Lean’s directorial debut, the war time naval film, In Which We Serve, Attenborough played the cowardly rating who we all fear we might be underneath.   It is a nuanced and human performance.

His most famous early role (and one of his three most impressive acting performances in my view) was as the vicious baby-faced gangster Pinkie, in John Boulting’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.  If you have seen that film it is hard to get out of your head the psychopathic cruelty of the recording that Pinkie makes for his naïve wife (who he has married so she cannot testify against him) as a present telling her ‘you think I love you, but the truth is I hates you’.  The fact that she never gets to heart it is minor compensation given we, as the audience, no the darkness he carries inside.  Attenborough is truly terrifying in the role.

As I wrote in my Cine-East tribute to Attenborough, his performance as serial killer, John Christie, in 10 Rillington Place  is as creepy as it is real.   The third of his great roles is as the Machiavellian General Outram in Satyajit Ray’s tale of British imperialism in India in the nineteenth century.  Attenborough plays the role with just the right combination of authority, duty and cold ambition.

Attenborough the director was not one of the greats.  His devotion to historical stories (often of a progressive bent in common with his leftish politics) often of great men (Steve Biko in Cry Freedom, Ghandi, The Young Winston etc) had a worthiness to it that prevented the films having any real insight into those who they portrayed (when compared to say David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia  - in which Lawrence is both a hero and a violent egotistical sadist).   His great and unreasilsed dream was to make a film about Thomas Paine.  That is not to say his films are not worthy of watching – they all have great acting and his astonishing debut First World War musical satire Oh What A Lovely War showed that he had a talent for directing, which was perhaps never fully exploited because of his choice of subject matter.

His devotion to the British film industry was also seen through his Chairmanship of the British Film Institute, a role he fulfilled with subtlety and success for 11 years, from 1981-1992 through the difficult cost-cutting years of the Thatcher regime, which he detested.

Richard Attenborough 1923-2014 RIP

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