Billy Liar January 19, 2023
1 Hr., 38 Mins.
he fibs told by Billy Liar’s (1963) title character are not rooted in malice but somewhere deep in the gaping chasm separating his dreams and reality. Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) is a 20-something living in Yorkshire in a drab apartment with his grandma and parents (Ethel Griffies, Wilfred Pickles, and Mona Washbourne), working a nowhere job as an undertaker’s clerk in the afternoons. With dreams
of moving to London and nebulously becoming some sort of “somebody,” Billy feels stultified to the point that he often mentally checks out to escape inside a daydream world that seems only to feel realer the more hopeless things feel. In his dream world, which the film often cuts away to, Billy sometimes imagines himself a world-famous writer whose face presides over city streets on billboards. In others, he’s a feared dictator, temporarily unshackled from the powerless inadequacy imprisoning him in his day-to-day life.
Billy’s lies are unconscious attempts to wrest some control in a life where he has little. He’s successfully proposed marriage to multiple women his age with no real intentions of following through. And he tells people with growing regularity that he’s due in London soon to serve as a writer for a popular comedian (Leslie Randall), even though when Billy manages to make actual contact with the latter the guy notes that in his profession you don’t exactly need somebody else coming up with jokes for you.
Courtenay is very good as a misguided dreamer more attentive to status than the work necessary to make it happen; the film’s ending is a fairly shattering tying together of a movie making a tragicomedy from the commonplace experience of having your dreams get crushed by life’s practical obligations, of fleeing to familiar comforts when presented with potentially life-changing opportunity.
But for all that’s good about Billy Liar — also great is Julie Christie’s all-too-brief turn as a similarly dream-forward love interest — I struggled to ever really care about it. There’s a “so what” quality when you have a movie focusing on an average young white guy bumbling through life who, outside the destruction he wreaks to soothe his feelings of insufficiency, has no qualities making him particularly compelling. (The frequent cartoonish detours into his pretend world only confirm it; they play, with their absurdist comedy, like attempts to make an uninteresting character seem the opposite.) It’s a movie to admire rather than particularly like — appreciate for the serious attention it gives to a common-to-the-point-of-being-mundane tragedy without ever making that convincing a case for its own necessity. C+