Billy Liar (1963)

Billy Liar (1963)

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He couldn't remember which one of his three girlfriends she was.
He couldn’t remember which one of his three girlfriends she was.

Twitter Plot Summary: Compulsive liar Billy Fisher has dreams of being a writer, but his dreams often end up more elaborate than reality.

Five Point Summary:

1. Welcome to Ambrosia!
2. Funeral home. Apt.
3. How many relationships does he have on the go?
4. I feel sorry for his Mum.
5. Two pints. Two pints of milk.

Billy Liar forms part of the British New Wave of cinema in the 1960s, a filmmaking trend that showed the realities of life for the working classes and often drawing attention to the existence of families and persons living in the north of England – a place which, as it happens, I have a growing affinity for as time moves on. Billy Liar is an interesting component of the New Wave in this respect in that it doesn’t quite conform with the conventions of the pseudo-documentary style the genre is known for. Indeed, the opening sequence is an elaborate fantasy set entirely in the head of Billy Fisher, the lead character and titular liar. He has concocted the nation of Ambrosia, where he appears to inhabit most of those living there, and is a fantastic place for him to escape from the austerity of post-war Britain.

And Billy Fisher really is a compulsive liar, engrossed in his own little fantasy world where his imagination is king and reality can take a running jump. This has the propensity to get him into trouble – when we meet him he is in relationships with three different women and is perilously close to having it all fall apart around him. Billy is essentially a child in a man’s body, self-centred and prone to making rash decisions that will hurt those closest to him. Other than the effects his actions have on his family, they have wider ramifications for those living in his town and, in particular, the three women who are all targets for his affections.

His impression of Heath Ledger's Joker was not appreciated in the office.
His impression of Heath Ledger’s Joker was not appreciated in the office.

It’s worth taking into consideration the time in which this film is set and when it was made. The war was still fresh in many people’s memories by 1963, and its effects could still be felt. This is shown in the film, but never specifically referenced. Old, ramshackle buildings are torn down in order for new ones to be built, and the damage inflicted by the war, both physically and mentally, can be felt in most scenes. It’s perhaps no accident that Billy works in a funeral directors – a potent metaphor for his generally moribund existence.

Further breaking it away from its New Wave brethren is that Billy Liar is a comedy. There are some incredibly deep themes at play – how we choose to live our life, the impact of war on the younger generation twenty years after its end, the futility of hope, and so on – yet it’s still ostensibly a comedic tale. There are farcical overtones to Billy’s simultaneous relationships with three women, his seeming inability to escape from his fantasy world of Ambrosia (or indeed, fantasies of him machine gunning his parents after they chide him), and his attitude towards work and the real world, but in the background is a genuine sense of pathos and regret in that Billy is destined to remain in his fantastical comfort zone rather than attempting to live out his dreams, which comes across more as a defence mechanism than anything else. It certainly goes some way to explore the notion of the futility of dreams and following your passions. Whilst this melancholic tone does play a large part to the tale, it never comes at the expense of the gentle humour – that makes it a winner in my book.

Score: 4.5/5

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