Tom Courtenay did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Colin Smith in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.
I've already covered the always underrated Courtenay for his later foray in another film considered a kitchen sink drama, Billy Liar, though the leads of these films are often referred as the angry young man, that was less so the case for Billy Liar who would have been better referred to as the aimless young man, though technically speaking Colin Smith is also aimless. It's interesting to compare the two performances though as Courtenay crafts two distinct characters that differ in style as well. In the broad strokes, though it was not that simple in the least, as Billy Liar Courtenay gave most often a comic performance in his depiction of the young man who preferred fantasies over reality, though this did indeed hide a very troubled state of mind beneath it all. Here with The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner Courtenay is given much more directly that angry young man type. One of the best scene in the opening scenes of the film as he's taken to the reformatory and is given the initial speech by the superintendent (Michael Redgrave). The sheer hatred Courtenay conveys as Colin stares down the warden sets up perfectly where Colin's state of mind is at the beginning of the film though technically it is more of the middle of the story.
As we proceed in these early scenes Courtenay is extremely effective in revealing the manner of Colin which is the epitome of a rebel without a cause, but unlike say James Dean there is nothing "cool" about Courtenay's portrayal. Courtenay instead does not hold back on the harshness of the nature of this anger showing it as something that is very much off-putting as there does not seem to be an exact purpose for it at first. Courtenay rather than having his character defines his defiance, it is simply the act of defiance that defines Colin. Courtenay does not show anything promising in Colin with his work though instead revealing a very definite problem with the man, as the intensity he brings to his anger suggests not a man waiting or wanting to do something right, rather a man who soon could do something quite wrong very soon. Courtenay is terrific because he establishes this being Colin at his absolute worst point that so well reflects what we later learn about Colin, but with all those other elements, in combination with imprisonment, Courtenay reveals the combination of all these pains into a truly troubled young man. Very naturally though Courtenay does not allow Colin to be defined by this note, as times passes, as well as when we see what came before, Courtenay presents us the greater whole of Colin.
This sort of begins with Colin's time with the prison psychiatrist who tries to discover his problems. Courtenay is great because he still has that sharpness, that fervor against the man representing authority currently, though now tempered a bit as he's simply has time to cool down in addition to the psychiatrist being a empathetic man. Courtenay brilliantly begins to peal away more at Colin for us though when the psychiatrist asks about his father and Colin reveals that he died. Courtenay is exceptional in this moment as he so subtly reveals a palatable grief over his father's death while still holding up that front that Colin keeps. This eventually leads us to the flashback sequences of the film where Colin is an aimless young man living with his family including his dying father that seems to concern his concern his mother very little. Courtenay once again is absolutely fantastic in how well he gets across what is going on beneath Colin. On the surface again there is always that hint of anger, that gets stronger at certain understandable moments, and often a sense of ambivalence towards life as though he's in some way above it. Courtenay though is so good though as there is such a striking undercurrent of sadness in Colin, who is heartbroken over his father made all the worse because of his mother's indifference.
Courtenay continues to excel in the way he furthers the character in the scenes away from his family or any potential authority figures where he puts on that tough guy act of sorts. Outside of those scenes, particularly when he and his friend attempt at romancing two young women, Courtenay brings out this more genuine youth in Colin. This is indeed in moments of just simple juvenile excitement in doing some occasional acts of thefts as well as simply trying to impresses the women, but Courtenay also is quite powerful as he brings out that vulnerability, that he certainly alluded to before, into the open when he is alone with just one of the women. Courtenay is marvelous as he shows the shy confused man that Colin is deep down inside, and actually presents a certain sweetness by removing any of those barriers that Colin usually keeps firmly in place. In these brief moments Courtenay is able to create the sense of what compels Colin otherwise though by granting this sensitivity in him, but also a certain considerable fear both in terms of avoiding what his father became as well as simply to face what he must face. Courtenay makes sense of Colin's confused state so well that the fact that his robberies only become riskier ends up feeling like an inevitability, since Courtenay shows that Colin really has no idea what he is doing or what he should do.
Now the film also depicts Colin continuing life in the detention center where Courtenay slowly eases away that hatred that was so strong at first, as Colin finds that he has a knack for long distance running, which makes superintendent happy for purely selfish reasons involving a competition between the center and a school. Colin begins to fall very much into line, which Courtenay also gives sense to not only through the fact that Colin's clearly had time to calm down, but also in the moments of the running. In these moments Courtenay expresses a considerable enthusiasm and joy as Courtenay shows Colin finally doing something seemingly on his own terms that also seems to have some purpose. This eventually leads to the climatic race which Colin easily could win, but just before the finish line stops to the fury of all. The rebellious streak reappears in Colin, and this could easily have been a meaningless moment if it were not for Courtenay's portrayal of it. It is not an anger that compels Colin this time. Courtenay instead shows Colin know far more aware of his own self, and instead presents a moment of a personal pride of sorts as Colin stops in defiance not in hatred, but rather to be his own man. Tom Courtenay gives a great performance here and one of the very best Kitchen Sink performances here because he never leaves Colin Smith as just an "angry young man", he finds what there is beneath that surface, painting a most compelling portrait of a man lost trying to find some path which he can call his own.