Stars: Ray Winstone, Mick Ford, Julian Firth, John Blundell, Phil Daniels
Director: Alan Clarke
Released by Kino Lorber
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
Alan Clarke mostly working in television in Britain made a series of shorts and films. He died in his early fifties but left a legacy of some very powerful films about the working class. The underprivileged and violent young men that populated his films were drawn very realistically. These were tough kids who were growing into tougher man. He provided an unflinching look at the lifestyles on the underbelly of society. Made in Britain (1982) featured a young Tim Roth. The Firm (1989) Starred Gary Oldman. Both of these were TV Movies that pack quite a punch. The Firm ranks up there with The Football Factory (2004) as the best films about soccer (football) hooligans and the constant rumbling they celebrate the matches with. However back in 1977 Alan Clarke was asked to pull his punches. He made a scathing criticism of the current juvenile detention system that featured beatings, rape, and suicide. The borstal system as it was known was a school of very hard knocks that served to bring more kids to their knees than achieve any kind of reform. The BBC elected not to air it due to the content. Clarke’s response was to go ahead and remake it as a feature film. Many of the same cast members reprised their roles. The theatrical version is bloodier, rougher, and has more foul language. The gang rape and suicide are portrayed much more graphically. The suicide scene is harrowing to sit through.
The film opens like a typical prison picture with the new fish getting berated by the guards. They march down the corridors with their new prison clothes as the inmates yell at them – only these are mostly boys and teenagers. Carlin is a big kid who has a reputation. The guards lay into him immediately as do the tough inmates who currently rule the roost inside. The top guy is called the daddy and he makes sure Carlin knows who his daddy is, leaving him bloody and beaten. Ray Winstone (The Proposition, Hugo) plays Carlin. He is a big imposing guy who exudes a steely determination. It is clear from the start that the guards beat the kids so the bigger kids beat the smaller kids. It’s a simple Darwinian pecking order inside the walls. Right from the beginning director Alan Clarke makes his style clear and it works perfectly for this film. The film has a documentary look to it with fairly simple shots that feature plenty of light. It looks very much like a BBC TV documentary. There is no music, none at all. We know that Carlin is going to get even with the daddy who beat him up. He strolls calmly into the rec room. He lifts a few pool balls off the snooker table and drops them into a big gym sock. He lets the sock hang at his side as he casually saunters from one room to the next till he finds his quarry. Then in a blitzing movement he swings the sock in a huge arc bringing it down on the boy’s face a few times. It is a very powerful sequence all done in one shot. If you look carefully you can spot where something softer has been substituted for the pool balls prior to the actual strike. Now Carlin is the Daddy and will run things in the borstal.
While much of the film is full of angst, anger and physical outbursts one character stands apart. Archer played very nicely by Mick Ford marches to a very different drum. He stages his protests in humorous pokes at the authorities. He demands vegetarian food not because he is a vegetarian, but just to make it more difficult for them. He does not wear shoes as the leather “offends his beliefs” At one meeting with the Governor he reflects that Mecca has been appealing to him and he may switch his religion. It is a very sixties style personal revolution powered by a wise ass form of dark humor. He is like a character out of Catch-22. No one messes with Archer. He becomes one of the few that Carlin takes a genuine liking to.
Throughout the film the kids must report to the Governor. They are made to stand at attention sandwiched between the bull like guards. It’s a humiliating encounter. Clearly this system does not reform anyone at all. There is a vicious gang rape in a greenhouse that leaves the victim unable to cope with anything at all. Tensions mount till they explode in a violent riot. The sequence with the kids hurling chairs and tables into the middle of a big lunch room looks very much like it is completely out of hand. In the supplements one learns that it was indeed out of control. Scum is a very affecting piece. Alan Clarke makes his statement clearly and boldly. The crushing atmosphere within the institution remains very much in your face during the whole movie. By the time it actually aired on television the borstals as portrayed in the film had been changed.
Video – 1.66:1
This is not a pretty film. It’s got a sparse palate that lives mostly in the grey scale. Lighting purposefully has that Television like wash that renders everything kind of flat. Costumes are drab and faces are pasty. The walls and corridors have that institutional dullness. However within the pale some things stand out. This new Blu-Ray transfer gets the job done well though the picture quality is never going to be nice looking and that suits the film that just fine.
Audio – 5.1 and 2.0 in English.
There is no background music at all. The British accents can be a bit hard to follow at times though the intent is bloody well clear in every scene.
Extras – Commentary with Ray Winstone, Interviews with writer Roy Minton and others, Trailer. It would have been nice to see something with Director Clarke but hearing the writer speak about their intentions is very interesting, especially how they went from a TV Movie to a theatrical film.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic
Movie – Excellent
Blu-Ray – Good