Following the tragic termination of Filmstruck, the thoughtfully curated and programmed streaming service, Criterion triumphantly assured distraught fans that they would be independently forming a service of their own. They have a built-in audience by now, and the notion of a service specifically aimed at hardcore cinephiles is thrilling (and necessary) to critics, scholars, film students, and devoted viewers alike.
Their plans appear to be coming to fruition, as Criterion has confirmed a release date of April 8, 2019 for what they have named The Criterion Channel. As a way to generate enthusiasm and traction for this venture, early subscribers have been granted viewing access to a single film from their catalog every week until the official debut. In addition to this “Movie of the Week” refreshing every Wednesday, every title also comes with various special features, including commentaries, interviews, and video essays.
The inaugural Movie of the Week was Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky, the suspenseful 1970s noir starring Peter Falk and John Casavettes, which was succeeded the following week by Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, the vibrant and romantic portrait of Hong Kong in the mid 1990s, and has continued this week with a double feature dedicated to the early career of the late English actor, Albert Finney.
The A-feature of this particular program is Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, one of the defining works of the British New Wave. The film follows Arthur Seaton (Finney), a young factory worker who, during the weekends, engages in various mischievous and unseemly activities as a way of railing against the monotonous blue-collar life led by many. During one of these weekends, a married woman (Rachel Roberts) with whom Arthur has been carrying on an affair with reveals herself to be pregnant with his child, and Arthur is taken by another woman (Shirley Anne Field) he met at a pub.
From there, the film follows Arthur’s journey as he is confronted, for perhaps the first time, with a series of problems that can’t be easily solved, and is required to attain some modicum of self-awareness and responsibility. It doesn’t come easily, and it’s a journey that seems somewhat familiar through modern eyes, but it’s intimate and energetic in a way that I was endlessly fascinated by.
Being a British film outside of the American Production Code, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is able to earnestly portray taboo issues such as sex, violence, and abortion, and it all makes for a working-class earthiness uncommon for the time period. This type of ground-level kitchen sink drama, shot on location and with various non-professional actors, often possesses a spontaneous and realistic atmosphere, and Saturday Night is no different.
It only makes sense that Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, The B-feature, is vastly different in nearly every way. Finney stars as the titular hero, an outsider born of shame and mystery, who adventurously and comedically pursues love with Sophie (Susannah York), in spite of her much higher societal standing. Featuring tongue-in-cheek narration, fourth wall breaks, and flighty set pieces, Tom Jones is an enjoyable and unorthodox, if not wholly compelling period piece.
At its heart, it’s a silly film, and I feel that the somewhat-convoluted plot trappings get in the way of that. The best sequences are dialogue-free; whether it’s sweeping across the British countryside, delighting in a well-choreographed sword fight, or watching Tom lustfully devour Lobster and Oysters with Mrs. Waters (Joyce Redman), a woman he has just rescued.
Casting a dashing, enthusiastic young fellow like Albert Finney against a dry, stodgy supporting cast makes for many a humorous situation, and it would also seem to signify a larger cinematic shift out of the gritty British New Wave into a more fanciful type of British cinema. Tony Richardson had indeed been a key figure of the movement, and he used Tom Jones as a way to stand directly counter to the seriousness of it all.
Watching the two films back-to-back, in addition to providing a snapshot of the historical context, also speaks volumes of Albert Finney’s incredible range. Even in these two films, which almost couldn’t be more drastically different in tone, Finney is able to convincingly portray characters who, while confident and charismatic, are simultaneously vulnerable and uncertain. Personally, I’m not as familiar with Finney’s work as I would like to be, but after watching these two films, I’m excited to see more.
Also included with the two films is a 1982 interview from The Dick Cavett Show, in which Finney discusses his own habits and methods as an actor. This, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and Tom Jones will be available to charter subscribers until February 20, and every weekly title will be available to stream when The Criterion Channel debuts on April 8.
Follow along with us here on Cinemaholics as we continue to dive into these Movie of the Week features each week, and let us know in the comments what you think about these films as well. You can also explore The Criterion Channel here. We highly recommend seeking out titles like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Tom Jones and whatever else we’re highlighting at your local library. You never know what might be available in your own neighborhood.