From the opening scene, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a remarkable film. No opening titles, no rousing music score, this is a film that heralds itself as real and raw as we are immediately thrown into the noise and bustle of the factory floor. The main character Arthur Seaton is not introduced to us as a classic film hero, instead we see him working and hear him bitterly voicing his thoughts on his job, his colleagues and his ambitions in a rousing monologue that sets the film apart.
Albert Finney, who has died at the age of 82, breathed life into Arthur Seaton and dominated the screen from that opening scene. A physical force of nature, he oozed confidence and bravado, his blunt masculinity bursting through. He was handsome and his performance sexually charged, but he brought intelligence to the role as his character mocks the hypocrisy and monotony of the factory and the powers that be.
Finney’s Seaton rose above the ridiculous existence of his peers and the social norms that he derided, instead riding the wave of his own personal revolution down to the pub. This wasn’t an ambitious young man wanting to escape his roots, he just cared about himself. “What I’m out for is a good time, all the rest is propaganda,” he declares in his opening voice-over.
Finney’s performance was fresh and exhilarating and helped to turn the tide and herald a new wave in filmmaking, his working-class accent signalling a sea-change in cinema. Finney was the future.
Born in Salford in 1936, a bookmaker’s son he attended Salford Grammar School before winning a place at the Royal academy of Dramatic Arts. After establishing himself as a talented theatre actor he moved into screen acting, first with a small part in Tony Richardson’s The Entertainer (1960) and then with his seminal role in Karel Reisz’s triumphant Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in the same year.
Finney was a distinctive and charismatic actor, his roots in the theatre brought luminosity to his screen performances. His portrayal of so called ‘angry young man’ Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning made him an instant star.
He worked with Richardson again with his title role in the gloriously lascivious Tom Jones (1963). He displayed playful, slacker heroics in a film that transported all the excesses of the swinging sixties aesthetic to an 18th century tale. A massive success in the UK and the US, the film earned Finney his first of four best actor Oscar nominations.
His run of notable roles continued with another collaboration with Karel Reisz in Night Must Fall (1964) and a highly respected performance in Two for the Road (Stanley Donen, 1967) opposite Audrey Hepburn.
Finney made his directorial debut with Charlie Bubbles (1968). Written by Shelagh Delaney, it focussed on a successful writer returning to his home city of Manchester and felt like a reflection of the reality of 1960s cultural success. It was to be his only time as director. He used his industry influence to support emerging British talent, including Lindsay Anderson’s If…(1969) and Mike Leigh’s Bleak Moments (1971).
The 1970s and 80s gave Finney an opportunity to explore a versatile set of roles, including Scrooge (1970) and as Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon (1982) opposite Diane Keaton, was a poignant study of a failing marriage. He received further Oscar nominations for his critically acclaimed role in The Dresser (Peter Yates, 1983) with fellow British New Wave alumni Tom Courtenay, and Under the Volcano (1984). He also appeared in the much-loved Annie (1982).
His body of work won new admirers amongst the next generation of independent filmmakers, with the Coen brothers casting him in Miller’s Crossing (1990), Steven Soderbergh in Traffic (2000) and Erin Brockovich (2000), a well-received performance which earned his fifth Oscar nomination. He also worked with Tim Burton.
He continued his theatre work, and also appeared in numerous TV dramas during the 1980s, 90s and beyond, including Dennis Potter’s final works Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, and his award-winning turn as Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm in 2002.
After a rousing turn as an aging criminal in Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) his final role was as gamekeeper Kincade in Bond film Skyfall (2012).
Finney brought layers of complexity, charisma and intelligence to every role. Although his image is fused with that of the British New Wave, his work didn’t just define one generation of filmmaking, it transcended that singular categorisation. With such a long and varied career across the decades and so many moments of greatness, his legacy will continue for generations to come.