Charlie Bubbles has evolved from his working-class roots in Manchester to become a rich, successful novelist. However, “success” has proven to be a double-edged sword; Charlie, who lives in London, attracts unwanted attention and, from the old crowd back home, some spiteful envy. Even well-meaning folk—chance acquaintances—may not quite “get” him. An overaged busboy, who admires Charlie’s work but hasn’t read it, preferring to go see the movies made from it, asks whether he is working or is just doing now “the writing thing.” Charlie, unsatisfied, feels he is drifting in his own life—and, at times, drifting past it. One Imagines that Shelagh Delaney, who wrote the splendid script for Charlie Bubbles, found plenty here to relate to.
Albert Finney, assisted by Stephen Frears, then in his mid-twenties, directed this wonderful film, which punctuates its precise social realism with whimsy. At the last, visiting his ex-wife and their young son on a Manchester farm, Charlie encounters a hot-air balloon one morning and takes off, maybe to the Land of Oz. This befits a film that has taken the generic form of a “road picture” during the auto-drive from London to Manchester, with Finney’s Charlie being accompanied by his American secretary-mistress, budding writer Eliza Hayhoe, stunningly played by Judy “Dorothy” Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli.
Indeed, all the acting in this film is first-rate, with Finney giving maybe his most beautiful, subtle and gracious performance. It benefitted, let me say, from finer direction than Karel Reisz or Tony Richardson had given this brilliant actor, and it is truly to be regretted that Finney hasn’t directed another film since. I am especially moved by Finney’s direction of dark or empty space, such as in the cab of the car at night, or in sparsely populated large rooms. Other shots, juxtaposed with these, are claustrophobic: two human heads crowding the frame. The emotional outcome is complex: there is a “release” from the straightjacketing closeness, but it is one, ironically, of intense loneliness—something that Finney conveys without the stress and fuss of Stanley Kubrick’s overly composed visual vacancies in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). There’s a visual artist at work in Charlie Bubbles, not a fashion photographer.
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