Albert Finney’s CHARLIE BUBBLES (1967) [8/10]

Charlie Bubbles so disturbed the all-powerful UK exhibition-distribution machine in 1967 that it was effectively denied any kind of proper release. Since then, Finney’s only similar credit has been as co-director of a mid-80s TV movie about the Steve Biko case. Perhaps if/when he wins his Oscar (for Big Fish?) and/or gets his knighthood, he might be encouraged to have another try — because 36 years on, Charlie Bubbles holds up well enough to suggests that Finney’s enforced retirement from directing was possibly as big a blow to late-sixties British film as the suicide of Michael (Witchfinder General) Reeves.

Finney plays the title character, a mega-successful author from Manchester now relocated to a luxurious London mews-house. Over the course of a longish weekend Bubbles goes out on the piss with an old pal (Colin Blakely), and then – accompanied by his young American assistant (a touchingly perky Liza Minnelli in her adult-acting debut) – he drives back Up North to tour his old haunts, and to visit his ex-wife (Billie Whitelaw) and young son (Timothy Garland) at their rural Derbyshire home.

Not a great deal happens in Charlie Bubbles: the closest the film comes to the usual definitions of plot is when our hero takes his kid to see Manchester United play Chelsea at Old Trafford, and the kid — understandably bored at having to watch the game through glass from an expensive box — absconds to make his own way home. Instead the screenplay – by Morrissey-favourite Shelagh Delaney (who also wrote A Taste of Honey) takes the form of slightly disjointed, sometimes mildly surreal episodes built around the jaded, disconnected central character, a writer enduring what F Scott Fitzgerald called the “crack-up.”

Bubbles is, financially speaking, enormously successful — we never find out exactly what kind of books he writes, but the era, and the fact that many of them have been filmed, suggests he’s perhaps some kind of a Len Deighton figure. But otherwise Bubbles’ life seems to be a disaster-zone: its possible to see Bubbles’ northern tour as a kind of deliberate leave-taking before suicide, or some other kind of desperate escape. Indeed, the final moments do see Bubbles quite literally float away from all of his troubles in a sequence that is, depending on your perspective, enigmatic/pretentious/dreamlike/a cop-out.

And of course, given Finney’s own Salford background, his hard-drinking image (Bubbles thinks nothing of driving halfway up the country after a day on the sauce) and his sudden 1960s rise to fame, it’s very tempting to interpret the film as an autobiographical cry of existential anguish; or perhaps an attempt for Finney to interrogate/subvert his own legend in the way that several of Warren Beatty’s 1960s movies (directed by others) attempted to do. Finney, however, is very much in charge of his movie, and the focus is just as much on a Britain awkwardly positioned with one foot in the past and one in the future; where the old class definitions are becoming blurred by money; where the old terraced houses are being torn down, while Manchester city-centre (unwisely) dives headlong into a concrete-brutalist future.

Mike Hodges must have seen Charlie Bubbles before making his similar northern-metropolis-on-the-cusp time-capsule Get Carter (1972) – which also features a colliery jazz-band marching through what once was a vibrant housing estate – while the Derbyshire sequences prefigure both The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1973) and 24 Hour Party People (2001) in their Manchester/Peak-District dichotomy. Finney’s film, however, has a character all of its own: seemingly blunt but essentially enigmatic, much like the man himself. In terms of using cinema as a means of super-confident, enjoyably egotistical, of-its-time-but-ahead-of-its-time self-expression, in fact, the actor-turns-director movie which Charlie Bubbles most strongly recalls is nothing less than… Citizen Kane.

Neil Young
4th December, 2003
(seen 30th November : CineSide, Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

CHARLIE BUBBLES : 8/10 : UK 1967 : Albert FINNEY : 89 mins