A Sense Of Freedom Review

A Sense of Freedom is an astonishingly powerful film, a cry of rage at a prison system which brutalises both prisoners and their keepers and an intensely moving character study of a man who begins as remarkably unlikeable yet becomes ennobled through experiences that would destroy most of us. Although made for Scottish television, it’s considerably better than the vast majority of those Brit-crime flicks that were assailing us at regular intervals a few years ago.

Based on the bestselling autobiography of Jimmy Boyle, one-time ‘most dangerous man in Scotland’, it’s filmed in the same visceral, involving style that director John Mackenzie brought to The Long Good Friday. Boyle (Hayman) was born in The Gorbals, a notoriously underprivileged area of Glasgow, and had a childhood that seems to have largely consisted of poverty, truancy and petty crime. The film begins in 1964 as he is just becoming established as a minor-league gangster with a thriving protection racket and the first third consists of following him through various brushes with rival mobsters and the law – represented by Inspector Davidson (the excellent Fulton Mackay) – until he was finally convicted, in 1967, for the murder of one of his competitors and given life imprisonment with a minimum tag of 15 years. He began his sentence in Glasgow Prison, where he was brutally beaten by prison officers after assaulting the governor, then moved to Aberdeen where he managed to wind up in solitary after only a few hours on the premises. He remonstrated by smearing his shit over himself and his cell and was moved, after six weeks, back to Glasgow and placed in The Cages – notorious solitary cells with virtually no amenities of any kind. The authorities were at a loss for what to do with him – prison officers eventually refused to have anything to do with him – and it was only a fortuitous move to Barlinnie Special Unit in the early 1970s that suggested a way forward.

This is harsh, often upsettingly violent stuff. The first section of the film, with Boyle becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Glasgow underworld, is familiar stuff but executed with expert precision by John Mackenzie. Boyle is not, to put it mildly, a sympathetic figure but he is a magnetic one and David Hayman’s performance is simply extraordinary. He combines charisma with immediate threat and when he says, to an opponent, “You’ll see fuck all without your eyes”, we know that he’s capable of anything. Yet, Hayman also gives him a sense of humour, which redeems a fair bit of his cruelty, and there’s a nice sense of absurdist comedy in scenes such as the one where he good-humouredly deals with an elderly interloper who is trying to blag a free drink by pretending to be his uncle. Mackenzie presents the violence very responsibly – we see very little of the act itself but he lingers over the horrible consequences. Sometimes, the camera shies away – as in the scene where Boyle is attacked with hammers by a group of enemies – and sometimes the action is so quick we barely register it. At one point, early in the morning, Boyle goes to visit a rival at home and casually slashes him across the face with a razor so fast that it’s only when we see the blood that we take in what’s going on. The shock is compounded when Boyle says to his friends afterwards, “Was that the right guy ?” Not that it would have mattered one way or the another – it’s the reputation he wants, not the ‘justice’.

It’s vitally important to the scheme of the film that we see just what an unpleasant piece of work Boyle is. We have to appreciate – and hate - his own cruelty if the point of the film is to work. The tone begins to change after Boyle is convicted. probably wrongly, of murder. Firstly, the pace slows and there’s a sense of reflection. There is a marvellous scene in which Davidson sums up Boyle’s spiritual predicament – “Me and you go back a long way. I’ve known you since your first approved school.... Your time has been and all you’ve got to live for are your memories.” Mackay’s reading of this is inspired. It’s a quiet, sad and chilling moment because we see the first flickerings of Boyle registering the mess he’s made of his life. It’s a realisation that took a good eight years to produce any result, but it’s origins seem to lie here.

Then, we’re into a prison movie and it’s a graphic account of brutality that rivals Scum for sheer attack. The behaviour of the prison officers is clearly reprehensible and at one point it seems to be one beating after another – usually following a hypocritical assurance that “there’ll be no brutality”. As in the earlier scenes, Mackenzie refuses to wallow in the violence, usually cutting away. The results are just as distressing as the beatings inflicted by Boyle’s criminal rivals and what is notable is the sense of elation obviously felt by the officers during the aftermath, when they have frequently come away bruised and bloodied. When Boyle smears his excrement around his cell he makes a fundamental point about his treatment – “My blood turns you on but my shit makes you cringe” – suggesting that at some point, the recognition of him as anything more than a ‘bastard’, a punch bag, has broken down. Yet, Peter McDougall’s literate screenplay refuses to play favourites. Just as Boyle is made believably complex, so the prison officers are allowed a human voice. In one scene, a couple of warders are chatting casually about family and the senior officer captures Boyle’s eye, saying, “You thought I was just a bastard. You didn’t think I might have a sister or people I care about and who care about me.” Essentially, this is a serious document about the paradoxical effect of officially sanctioned – or at least allowed – brutality. It brutalises not only the victim but also the perpetrator and it’s this remorseless descent into animalistic cruelty that the film seems to be raging against. It never seems to occur to either the officers or the prison authorities that this vicious circle might be having unwanted consequences, that their treatment of Boyle might have something to do with his anti-authoritarian stance or even that it might be a bad thing. It’s a cycle of rebellion and punishment that seems virtually impossible to break.

Yet the triumph of this intelligent, affecting film is that it shows how the cycle can be broken if only people could think beyond their natural prejudices. Barlinnie Special Unit, where Boyle began painting, sculpting and writing, was an attempt to break free of conventional notions of punishment. Taking the view that the basic punishment of those imprisoned for a long period of time was the removal of their liberty and normal life, it attempted to provide them with a regime which restored to them their identity of human beings and gave them the possibility of a future, if they were released, that might provide something better than recidivism. At the risk of revealing myself as a bleeding-heart liberal, something which I’m actually quite proud of, it seems to me symptomatic of the basic failures in our narrow-minded society that the Unit was identified as letting ‘evil men live in luxury’ and was closed in 1994 despite a remarkable success in reducing the level of reoffending from over 70% in the normal system to an extraordinary 4% for their inmates. The knowledge of this closure does temper the optimism of the film somewhat but not the human achievement it depicts. Jimmy Boyle, whose excellent books are well worth reading for anyone who has an interest in the human race, has devoted his subsequent life to rehabilitating ex-convicts using painting and sculpture to encourage them to express the inner consciousness that they are not eloquent enough to adequately speak about. Boyle, himself more than eloquent about his own life, is a remarkable man; devoid of self-pity or anger about his treatment, his ideas about dealing with re-offending are insightful and worth listening to. It’s a shame that under the current government – and any conceivable alternative in the near future – they are unlikely to be listened to.

However, social implications aside, this is a superb piece of filmmaking. The verite style camerawork by Chris Menges is exemplary and Frankie Millar’s music perches acutely between dread and poignancy. Sadly, John Mackenzie has irretrievably blotted his copybook since the days of this and The Long Good Friday. The rot set in with his bizarrely ineffectual version of The Honorary Consul - saved by Michael Caine’s performance – and only occasional shafts of light have been seen since – the TV movie Act of Vengeance about the Yablonski murders is good and Ruby has some nice moments. But he was on fire around the turn of the seventies into the eighties and A Sense of Freedom has the same grim urgency that he brought to his more famous film and his TV work, some of which was also done in collaboration with McDougall. At its best, it stands along the other great examples of British television that demonstrate that when we talk about the decline of British cinema, it’s often an acknowledgement that TV has been doing things just as well – or better – all the time.

The Disc

It’s marvellous that we finally have an opportunity to see this film once more. It’s been released on VHS a couple of times but it’s great to see it on DVD with some excellent contextualising material. It’s a measure of just how tough this TV drama is that it’s still disturbing enough to warrant an 18 certificate from the BBFC.

For reasons which escape me, the opening credits are transferred in 1.66:1 letterbox and this made me fear the worst – why would Anchor Bay crop a 1981 TV movie into widescreen ? – but luckily the remainder of the film is in the correct 4:3 ratio. It’s not a bad transfer. A Sense of Freedom was shot on 16MM film and the original elements have obviously not been kept in the best of condition. This transfer contains a certain amount of print damage and quite a bit of artefacting is present. But it looks suitably filmic, there is a good level of detail and colours come across strongly. Proper restoration would have been advantageous but was presumably not economically viable for such a lesser known title.

Two soundtracks are provided, both in English. As ever, I’m a bit perplexed about Anchor Bay’s policy of remixing every mono film they release into various stereo formats. The results are a bit of a mess. Basically, the difference between the 2.0 Stereo and 5.1 mixes included here are minimal. The mono soundtrack is pumped through the various channels and then fiddled with to provide a simulacrum of surround but I find the effect wearing and, in the case of some very disconcerting sound effects, unpleasant. A proper mono track would have been far preferable. However, the dialogue is at least clear and

There are just two extras but both are worthwhile. Firstly, there is a well written and reasonably detailed biography of Jimmy Boyle. This is probably worth reading before you watch the film as it prevents a certain confusion about the actual time scale – period detail isn’t one of the strengths of the piece ! Secondly, and more significantly, there is a superb hour-long documentary made for French TV called “Convict Rage and Reverie”. Admittedly, how moving you find this may depend on your political stance on the purpose of imprisonment but I found it incredibly touching. It combines two strands. On the one hand, it’s an extensive interview with Jimmy Boyle about his life before, during and after prison in which he reveals an extraordinary self-awareness. On the other, it’s a series of scenes about various art-therapy programs which have been operated in French prisons. We meet a range of convicts and hear about their backgrounds, some of which are despairingly sad, and also, on occasions, find out about what happened to them after the interview. This is fullscreen with mono sound and subtitles for the narration and French-language interviews.

As usual with Anchor Bay, no subtitles have been included for the film or the English portion of the documentary. I’ve still not found out exactly why Anchor Bay don’t provide these but it’s becoming tiresome to have to keep repeating this criticism.

A Sense of Freedom is marvellous stuff and a classic of TV drama. This DVD release doesn’t make it look like new but it’s no disgrace either and the quality of the main feature and the documentary are sufficient to make it worth buying.

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