arthur seaton, the hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (novel) is trying to come to terms with an unsatisfactory world. In this he is like the heroes of Lucky Jim, Room at the Top, Look Back in Anger, and other recent plays and novels. Although Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is distinguished from the others by its aggressive social criticism, it shares a common weakness—it romanticises its hero.
Alan Sillitoe makes Arthur more sympathetic than he deserves by playing down his destructive, anarchic side. This is expressed in the book by Arthur’s relationship with Brenda and her sister. Neither of them come alive as characters so that there is no real sense of Arthur’s irresponsibility in his relationships with them. Arthur is a very likeable character because the only side of him that has any force is his rebellion against authority, pomposity and stupidity.
Karel Reisz’s biggest achievement in the film of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is to present Arthur much more objectively. Both sides of Arthur, the likeable and the irresponsible, are in the film. Reisz has done this by giving all the other characters their own life and meaning. Because Brenda is a very real person, Arthur’s actions can be judged clearly by their effects on her. In the same way, all the minor characters, Arthur’s friend, his mother and father, Aunt Ada, Brenda’s husband Jack, Robboe the foreman, have their own existence and make their own comment on Arthur. The way the environment is observed also makes the point. We know a good deal about Arthur once we have seen that ugly factory, those rows of depressing back-to-back houses. For the first time in any recent novel, play or film, the hero is in a situation which is not distorted to put us completely on his side.
Karel Reisz gets his main effect from the style he uses. It’s almost an anti-style. The camera does only enough work to tell the story as simply and directly as possible. Because of this the audience is encouraged to make judgements for itself. Just how important this is has gone unnoticed. Very few contemporary films, whatever their quality leave their audience alone. Nearly every director, either serious or hack, tries to bludgeon his audience by his technical skill or his dramatic talents. Because of their uncertainty about their relationship with the audience, directors seem constantly to be saying “Look, I’m here and I’m good”. Very few film makers have enough confidence in the audience just to assume their co-operation. Karel Reisz does just this.
This doesn’t mean that Reisz makes no judgements of his own. For all its simplicity, the style is varied and subtle enough to make the judgements very plain. The scene where Brenda tells Arthur that she’s pregnant is a good example of the film’s method. As Arthur and Brenda enter the park, the camera slowly tracks back creating a.sense of familiar intimacy. Then, when Brenda tells Arthur she’s pregnant, the camera halts and holds Arthur, whose face becomes ugly and distorted as he feels his freedom threatened. Throughout the film judgements are made firmly but unobtrusively in this way. By the end it is clear that for all his apparent simplicity, Karel Reisz has made a very complex response to the characters and their situation.