Silent Scream Review

Silent Scream is the story of life prisoner Larry Winters, with an award-winning performance from Iain Glen, on DVD from the BFI.

In 1964, Larry Winters (Iain Glen), a Scottish paratrooper, is sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of a London barman. Ten years later, with a reputation as Scotland’s most violent prisoner, prescribed barbiturates which would later kill him, he is transferred into the Special Unit at Barlinnie Prison.

David Hayman was, and still is, an actor and Silent Scream (not to be mistaken with the US horror film from 1980, as if you would) was his first film as director. A particularly significant acting role was as another famous – or infamous – Scottish prisoner, Jimmy Boyle, in A Sense of Freedom. While that film (which I admit I haven’t seen since an early 80s TV broadcast) went for harsh realism, Bill Beech’s script takes a different approach, flashing back in time to explore Winters’s troubled childhood – raised a Catholic in a primarily Protestant area – and his early life before prison, in a fragmented manner reminiscent of the work of Nicolas Roeg and Alain Resnais. The flashbacks are frequently non-naturalistic: Winters as an adult appears in them alongside his child self, and there are animated sequences. Unfortunately, comparisons with Roeg and Resnais don’t work in the film’s favour: Silent Scream has a flat, televisual look, despite its evident ambitions. Hayman has continued to act – he’s in Burke and Hare, in UK cinemas as I write this – but has made two more features (1993’s The Hawk, which I have seen, and 1995’s The Near Room which I haven’t, plus work on television) since, and hasn’t directed since 1999.

It’s not a surprise that an actor works well with his cast, and the film’s greatest asset is Iain Glen in the leading role. Glen won two awards (the Silver Bear at Berlin and the Evening Standard Award) for this performance, and deservedly so. Not playing for easy sympathy, he holds the film together more than Hayman’s direction does and shows how underused an actor he has been. Despite the prominence given to Robert Carlyle on the DVD packaging (billed as Bobby Carlyle and making his screen debut, he plays a fellow prisoner), the real second lead is the late Anne Kristen as Larry’s mother. Primarily known for her television work (with regular roles in Casualty and Hamish Macbeth amongst others), this was her only feature film. Another director-to-be, Kenneth Glenaan, plays another prisoner. A very young-looking Douglas Henshall plays a news reporter.

As I say, this film scores for its ambitions – some of it was shot in the real Barlinnie Special Unit, which was closed down in 1993 – and the strength of its acting. It’s clearly a personal project, as scriptwriter Bill Beech met the real Winters in 1974, three years before Winters’s death at the age of thirty-four, though the fact that you are asked to if not sympathise then at least understand a convicted murderer will be a stumbling block for many. But for me, calling a film worthy is damning it with faint praise, but it’s unavoidble here – and a little dull too. Clearly opinions differ, as Silent Scream won the Michael Powell Award for the Best British Film of 1990 and the Scottish BAFTA Award for Best Film of 1991.


Silent Scream is released by the BFI on a single-layered DVD encoded for all regions.

The DVD transfer is in a ratio of approximately 1.80:1 (which would have been shown as 1.85:1 in cinemas) and anamorphically enhanced. Silent Scream is a grainy film, which may have been shot in 16mm, something I haven’t been able to ascertain but it looks like it was Much of it is shadowy, with brightly lit sequences serving as a contrast: Winters is free in his head, in the past. There is some print damage, with noticeable speckles especially at the very beginning.

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0, which plays as Dolby Surround, which I take to be a reflection of the Dolby Stereo track the film had in cinemas. Bob Last and Callum McNair’s music score is the main beneficiary of the surrounds, notably the howling synthesiser theme that accompanies the opening credits. Subtitles for the hard of hearing are available, which will be a plus for anyone who finds the Scottish accents of the cast hard going.

This is a barebones BFI release, which sells at a lower RRP than normal. So there is no booklet available, and the only extra are notes by Michael Brooke and film credits, printed on the inside of the DVD sleeve.


Updated: Nov 05, 2010

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