Release: 23rd May 2016
Format: BR / DVD
This unflinching drama from the controversial director of Scum explores the violent world of football hooligan Bex Bissell, as he wages bloody war against rival gangs to decide who will lead a national ‘firm’ into Europe to do battle on an international playing field.
“And so what I want you to do, Gary, is hit that pillow really, really hard with the metal asp.” Not the type of conversation you would imagine might lead to one of The Firm’s more terrifying moments, but there is indeed something truly unnerving about ‘that’ scene. The marriage of ludicrous imagery and adolescent rage teamed with Oldman’s raw commitment to the moment, show football hooliganism for what it really is; petulant insanity. It is anti-social disorder the goes from the confines of the home into the wider world, and then back again. Violence impinging on the domestic is a common theme throughout The Firm, whether that is the ICC initiations, or geezer-on-geezer phone threats leading to neglectful parenting, and of course that grim exchange with the eyes. This is a film, like the hooligans themselves, less concerned with the ‘great game’, and more about belonging and proving oneself.
Alan Clarke’s working print finds its début here courtesy of the BFI. With the fuss and noise regarding censorship upon The Frim’s original airing, you’d expect the Director’s Cut to be much more brutal. The truth is that although the work print is a tad more overt (close ups of slash wounds and a morally ambiguous rape scene), it turns out that any cuts Clarke did make didn’t dilute the film’s brutality one iota. One might even argue that the cuts made improved the film and made for a terser viewing experience. The fight scenes, in particular, benefit from better editing in the televised version.
Despite the intelligence and deft skill with which he handles The Firm, it is Clarke’s stylistic choices which prevent the film from, initially at least, standing the test of time. His sweeping shots and long takes might feel like something straight from Hollywood, but Clarke’s penchant for medium shots and 50mm lenses serve only to make The Firm look wholeheartedly like a TV movie. The lack of diegetic and non-diegetic music do this no favours either, as it gives the unsettling air of a rough cut. This was, however, all very conscious, and as the film moves along all becomes clear. But for the disinterested or impatient, such things could serve to damage initial reactions to the project. Which, I am sure, Clarke would have dismissed anyway.
Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Bex is nuttier than squirrel turds, and is like watching a shark go hammer and tongs at a seal; beautiful and scary. Bex powers through The Firm like a freight train; ripping and tearing at the atmosphere with aplomb. He isn’t always popping veins and bulging eyes, however, taking some moments to be just quietly terrifying as well. Philip Davis’ “Yeti” is presumably called so because he has the air of an elusive monster, and not because he is hairy all over. “Yeti”‘s arrogance is infuriatingly tangible. There is a knowing sneer he offers on and off during The Firm, which is always delivered at the exact right moment, making you realise that although he may be less aggressive than Bex, “Yeti” is just as dangerous. The Director’s Cut of the film serves one purpose that the aired version didn’t, and that is in giving Leslie Manville way more depth as Bex’s frustrated wife, Sue. She may have shown power equal to Oldman in the original, but it is only in the Director’s Cut that we see the true nuance and lunacy she injected into the role. One scene in particular, when Sue turns an attack into a brisk emasculation of the bullish Bex, you see a way more interesting and shocking dynamic between the two.
The Firm is truly the “Daddy” of hooligan movies, but it also the only intelligent and culturally responsible one. Clarke’s final scene may be a tad heavy-handed, but it sends a clear message about the film and its purpose. Hooligans are not to be feared or cheered, or even really given time to express an opinion, because their world is gibberish. They are not sports fans or even patriots; they are emotionally undeveloped children with a tribe mentality. Children who grew up angry, lost and alone, standing in their room, holding something metal and screaming silently, hitting a pillow like an absolute lunatic. Let’s just be grateful they aren’t all quite as unhinged as Gary Oldman.
Film Grade: A
Although the Director’s Cut is a little unloved in places, the BFI have been gracious enough to stick both versions on this release. There are two great Commentaries, with the Gary Oldman one being a personal favourite.
There is also a restored version of Clarke’s wearing and pertinent short film Elephant, which comes with a commentary with Danny Boyle; you lucky bugs. Even now, Elephant is truly alarming, and fits perfectly in with the current climate.
There are also a couple of dated, but excellent Documentaries from around the time of the film’s release. It is interesting to see the pre-social media ways in which people discussed the impact of controversial television, but also with an avenue for the director to respond.
Then a brief introduction to the film, which is a dry as a Rich Tea biscuit.
Special Features Grade: A