If…. (Lindsay Anderson, 1968)

17Apr11

Malcolm McDowell (Mick Travis). Screenplay by David Sherwin. Directed by Lindsay Anderson. Rating: 15. Running time: 111 minutes.

Surrealist art house cinema straight off the Swinging London scene, If…. is slow, difficult, and undoubtedly a product of its infamous countercultural times. The energy of May ’68 was in the air, and director Lindsay Anderson didn’t hesitate to capture the feeling on film within a smaller, more manageable context. We watch a group of schoolboys rebel against an Etonesque private boarding establishment, slowly building a reputation for increasingly serious dissent against the rigid rules and power hierarchy. It culminates in an ending that is hinted at all along: a Guy Fawkes-inspired plot involving the machine-gunning of the school’s key figures. This isn’t filmed as an amusing ‘what if.’ It’s made to feel frighteningly serious, and the experience’s texture is heavily indebted to McDowell and his ability to simultaneously smirk and scare, coming across as creepily cryptic but clearly sadistic too. How much of this is retrospectively perceived in light of his later performance in Clockwork is impossible to discern, but the foundations for that role were undoubtedly laid here, firmly grounded for Kubrick to take to their only possible conclusion. If…. is damn hard to watch, being full of long sequences of seemingly mindless teenage talk it’s tricky to spot the meaning of. But there is something about it that’s oddly engrossing. It seems to be the type of film that begs for a second viewing, for reasons I won’t try to claim I understand.

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