Albert Finney died on Thursday, apparently from one of those sudden infections generally harmless to youth but swiftly lethal to otherwise healthy old men. His last film was in 2012 - Skyfall, one of the best of all 007 outings, in which he played the Bond family's ancient Scottish retainer at James' crumbling childhood home. In that diamond jubilee year of Cubby Broccoli's lucrative franchise, it was a role fairly obviously intended for Sean Connery, but which Sir Sean, after Never Say Never Again, decided to say never again to, perhaps wisely. Finney was hairy, game, and, in his scenes with M (Judi Dench), not un-tender. And so half a century on screen ended with affectionate reviews for an undemanding turn in a global blockbuster.
Finney became a West End star at 23 in Keith Waterhouse's 1959 stage adaptation of Billy Liar, his novel of a northern working-class fantasist dreaming of life as a comedy writer in the Smoke (London). His second film, based on Alan Sillitoe's book Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, found him in a more naturalistic treatment of the same general milieu - a machinist at a bicycle factory in the East Midlands - and so for a while Finney was grouped with the so-called "angry young men" of gritty kitchen-sink dramas. A scion of Salford Grammar School, he would later concede that his own childhood hadn't, in fact, been quite that "gritty", and he was not by nature that "angry" (quite the opposite in my limited experience), but he kept his working-class vowels through the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and he belonged to the first generation of British actors who didn't aspire to drawl "Anyone for tennis?" as though born to it.
He turned down Lawrence of Arabia in favor of Tom Jones, and the latter made him a Hollywood star, though it certainly hasn't worn as well as the former. In 1967 Stanley Donen cast him with Audrey Hepburn in Two for the Road, a romantic comedy-cum-experimental drama set sur la route in southern France. If Donen, director of Singin' in the Rain et al, had made it a couple of years earlier, it would have starred Cary Grant (with whom he had made Charade and Indiscreet). But the old charmer had retired and Donen told me some years ago he thought it would be more interesting to pair a Golden Age leading lady with an actor of the new school and see what happened. What happened was underwhelming: The chemistry never sparked, and young Finney didn't seem to have quite the size of personality to match the sheen of Hepburn. The following year it was back to gritty northern working-class England, with Finney as Charlie Bubbles, a flash Mancunian returning home after making it big in London and motoring around town in a gold Rolls-Royce to matches of Man United, of whom he was a lifetime supporter and whose classic Matt Busby line-up - Bobby Charlton, Denis Law - is seen on screen. Finney directed Charlie Bubbles, and it's a terrific debut that would have earned more praise if he hadn't also been its leading man. But, if he ever again found any material he wanted to direct, he kept it to himself.
By 1974 he was Hercule Poirot applying his little grey cells to a cast of all-star suspects - Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, etc - in Murder on the Orient Express. Agatha Christie was damning: "It was well made except for one mistake. It was Albert Finney, as my detective Hercule Poirot. I wrote that he had the finest moustache in England - and he didn't." Dame Agatha was not wrong about the moustache, and the accent was problematic, too - although he was less of a cardboard caricature than Peter Ustinov's Poirot and, unlike Kenneth Branagh's, not a witless and vulgar assault on the character. Finney entered middle-age as a singing'n'dancing Daddy Warbucks in John Huston's film of Annie, which performance two of the three writers independently mentioned to me as one of the few things they liked about the picture.
His face and girth thickened. If you're a male movie star, you can keep yourself in trim and hold the years at bay. Or you can do, as most of the rest of us do, and let yourself go. So Finney relaxed and made a specialty of playing broad burly boozy bluffers, gone to seed and blustering their way through. In Erin Brockovich he was Julia Roberts' lawyer, who lets her down, loses her case, and agrees to give her a job as she's broke and ruined. Finney could do this kind of part in his sleep, but it's nevertheless a nuanced and human reading subtler than the activist do-goodery all around it. He seemed, from the Seventies on, to reserve the bulk of his ambition for the stage - I last saw him in the West End two decades ago in Yasmina Reza's Art, where he was splendidly charismatic and compelling. But once in a while a film role would come along and spur all his gifts. One such was Tim Burton's 2004 picture Big Fish, which is a story about a fish story - the one that got away. "There are some fish that cannot be caught," says Finney's character, beginning a fishy yarn he's told friends and family many times in his ever more unhurried Alabama drawl. By the time young Edward (Ewan McGregor) has mellowed and thickened into old Edward (Finney), he's learned that, like a good julep, a good story should be savored and relished and each leaf chewed over. In the first few moments of the film, we see Edward telling the story of his "big fish" over and over across the decades, until, finally, he tells it at the wedding of his son Will.
Will, of course, is insulted. He's sick of the fish tale. He knows it backwards. And that his father cannot for this one day - the biggest day of his son's life - think of anything new, anything personal, anything particular, anything that doesn't place dad front and center, anything other than the same phony-baloney yarn that reduces his child to a mere afterthought at his own wedding, is to Will an unforgiveable insult. He moves to Paris and is so determined to reject his fabulist pa that he becomes a copy-filer for the UPI news agency: that's his idea of a story – verifiable facts, names, dates, places, things that actually happened.
And then he gets word that his father is dying of cancer, and so he and his French wife fly home. He has no relationship with his dad, except insofar as he has been one more listener to the fish yarn and the other tall tales. He knows nothing about who his father really is or how he lived his life. And so, before the fish bore becomes the one that got away, Will determines to inflict some serious male bonding on him.
This is Finney at his best, fully engaged by the conceit: a man who is superficially warm and likeable, but inside cold and detached. Unfortunately, it's directed by Tim Burton, who as usual gorges himself on visual style and treats the script as an afterthought. In a fish story, it's supposed to be the fish that gets away, not the story. But there's something appealingly daffy about watching an actor as naturalistic as Finney conjure a gloriously overripe Gothic cornucopia of a life - like Billy Liar half a century before but with Cecil B De Mille rampaging through his imagination. If Big Fish has a hook, a line, but not quite a sinker, Finney nevertheless gives it a confident, swaggering pitch.
Round about the same time he was a strong telly Churchill in The Gathering Storm. A decade earlier, he'd offered an alternative take on nationhood and greatness in The Browning Version. The title refers to Robert Browning's translation of the Agamemnon, but this Browning Version was the 1994 Mike Figgis version of the 1951 Anthony Asquith screen version of the 1948 Terence Rattigan play. Finney plays the boarding-school classics master Crocker-Harris, whose pupils loathe him for the dead, undeviating routine of his classes. His wife despises him for his feebleness and impotence and is having an affair with the science master, a young American. You don't have to work hard to see Rattigan's post-war symbolism.
So, in the Figgis version, we sweep down a country lane winding lazily through sunlit Dorset farmland to a magnificent fourteenth-century chapel and a jovial, avuncular headmaster (Michael Gambon) in bow-tie and billowing gown who says things like "There'll be tears before bedtime": you think how brilliantly and precisely Figgis and his screenwriter Ronald Harwood have skewered the Britain of 1948. Then Albert Finney mentions "perestroika" and you realize: my God, they're trying to pass this off as Britain in 1994.
It won't wash - everything about the play screams 1948 - but Figgis seems to be shooting for a cinematic first: a contemporary movie where every period detail is wrong. Yet Finney delivers a superb central performance which vastly improves on Michael Redgrave in 1951. He's no effete, languid type like Redgrave; he's solid, like a rugby prop, and his sheer physical presence makes his fate that much crueler and more contemptible. In an agonized farewell address to the school, he acknowledges his failure and bemoans the decline of classics: "How can we help mold civilized human beings if we no longer believe in civilization?"
Crocker-Harris' admission of failure is, of course, a huge success, and his fellow teachers, his pupils and even his faithless wife go wild with applause — like a daytime-TV audience greeting a celebrity child-abuse survivor's confessional. It is an unsettling scene in a film which doesn't always support the weight Finney brings to the role and to that great central question of our time. Yet it recurs to me a lot over the years. If it's not as much fun as Skyfall, as saying "Welcome to Scotland" and then blowing away a bunch of sassenach invaders of 007's ancestral home, well, it was one of many creditable performances by a richly talented man who took his best work seriously. Rest in peace.
~With his ever mounting legal bills from college-loan billionaire Cary Katz and his litigious "Blaze Media", Mark is taking to the road and joining the great Dennis Miller on tour. This month they'll be together on stage for the first time, starting in Reading, Pennsylvania on February 22nd and Syracuse, New York on the 23rd - and with VIP tickets you not only enjoy premium seating but get to meet Dennis and Mark after the show. We hope to see you there!
Much of our content at SteynOnline is made possible through the support of members of The Mark Steyn Club. What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, aside from an audio Book of the Month Club and a video poetry circle, it's also a discussion group of lively people on the great questions of our time (the latest was yesterday), and a live music club (check out our annual Twelfth Night edition of On the Town). More details here.
Comment on this item (members only)
Viewing and submission of reader comments is restricted to Mark Steyn Club members only. If you are not yet a member, please click here to join. If you are already a member, please log in here: