Michael Inside Review
From The Hill and Scum, to Hunger and Starred Up, cinema made in and around the British Isles has a long tradition of being banged up at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. In many ways it’s an ideal fit for the gritty, social realist style we tend to do so well, usually taking us behind prison walls with a no-holds barred account of how raw and brutal life can be inside.
Michael Inside hails from the Republic of Ireland and is every bit as sobering and affecting as any British classic you care to mention. Much of director Frank Berry’s career to date has been concerned with the lives of young people living on both sides of the border. His latest release saw him undertake 18 months of intense research working alongside the Irish Prison Service, spending time with prisoners and ex-cons to find the authenticity that would help shape the character of 18-year-old Michael McCrea.
Dafhyd Flynn plays the role of Michael and the success of the film is derived from his subtle yet engaging performance that relies on his physical appearance more than anything else. Michael lives on a tough Dublin estate and mostly seems to keep his nose out of trouble, although he has a habit of making bad decisions that come back to haunt him. That’s what led to 12 month probation for being a passenger in a stolen car, but now he has a steady girlfriend and is trying to better himself at college.
We learn his father is already banged-up and his mother died from a drug overdose when he was young. He lives with his world weary grandfather Francis (Lalor Roddy) who tries to keep him on the straight and narrow. When he’s asked to hold a bag of cocaine it seems like a small favour for a friend that shouldn't lead to any trouble. That is until the police arrive at his home with a warrant and find it stashed in his room and the prospect of jail suddenly becomes far more likely.
Berry’s documentary-style aesthetic keeps Michael’s face front and centre throughout the film. The pending court appearance and the fear of going to prison immediately casts a dark cloud over his young features. The script doesn’t ask much of Flynn at this stage but we are reliant on him expressing his inner panic and anxiety through his constantly furrowed brow and lost gaze. Despite the wreckage of his family life he has managed to forge the possibility of a future yet one regrettable decision could ruin it all.
As the title implies, the judge shows no mercy and puts him away for three months, one of which is suspended. Being of an adult age he ends up at Mountjoy prison alongside hardened criminals who would be more than happy to take advantage of a slender built boy entering their world for the first time. He’s eventually taken under the wing of an experienced inmate called David (an excellent Moe Dunford) although their relationship is not as straight forward as it may first appear. Violence - or the threat of it - is always present, and even though it mostly takes place off screen or at the edge of the frame, you constantly fear for Michael's safety.
Flynn takes us through the harrowing experience of walking into the lion’s den and surviving and how that can irrevocably change you forever. The cards were stacked against Michael way before his minor indiscretion and Berry’s film is a stark reminder that where you are born, the house you are raised in and your economic background often dictate the course of your life. While there are few surprises in his narrative it does avoid some of the more obvious plot choices many similar films often fall victim to.
This is impressive and heartfelt filmmaking that feels genuine in every possible way. As you might expect, the cinematography is suitably drained of colour by DoP Tom Comerford, mirroring Michael’s grim state of mind and even bleaker prospects. Michael Inside isn’t miserablism for the sake of it, rather, Berry is speaking for the thousands of young men chewed up and spat out by the system before they’ve even had a chance to experience life. As Moe Dunford’s character perfectly summarises shortly after they meet: “Forget about buying a house, forget about going to the States. Your sentence only starts when you’re released.”
There will be a special Q&A screening with the director Frank Berry on Sunday, 16th September at the Prince Charles Cinema, London. Details of the event can be found here.