The Firm Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 DVD release of The Firm

When Alan Clarke’s The Firm was first broadcast in 1988, it was greeted with the same kind of outrage that greeded earlier Clarke films like Scum and Made in Britain – the usual drearily predictable demands for it to be banned, accompanied by luridly sensationalised distortions of the film’s content and purpose.

True, if you read a plot summary or watch a scene at random, it seems to more than live up to its notorious reputation: it’s both graphically and verbally violent (there’s surprisingly little swearing, given the subject matter, but a director and cast as good as this don’t really need that kind of punctuation to achieve maximum impact), it’s relentlessly nihilistic right up to the open-ended conclusion, and on the face of it it appears to glorify mindless thuggery – an impression made all the stronger by some frighteningly convincing performances, including arguably a career-best effort from Gary Oldman.

But far from being a piece of mindless exploitation, in retrospect it’s all too clear that The Firm is one of the definitive films about the Eighties in general and the Thatcherite mentality in particular. Although the subject of politics is never mentioned (Clarke was never a didactic tub-thumper), there’s no doubt this is intentional. These hooligans are far from the disaffected teenagers of Tory propaganda: they’re successful thirtysomething professionals grown fat on the Lawson boom, and using all this extra income at their disposal to buy flash motors, detached houses and outwardly upmarket lifestyles. And they plan their violent excursions with the same precision that they’d plan a marketing campaign at a trade fair, complete with promotional photographs (“Everybody look fierce!”) and mergers, as rival firms team up to “go to Europe to do the Europeans”.

The ICC firm’s ringleader is Bexy (Oldman), an estate agent by day, a family man in the evening (his wife, Sue, is played by Oldman’s then real-life wife Lesley Manville), and the leader of a gang of vicious thugs during the weekend, engaged in constant running battles with rival firms: football barely gets a look-in. Clarke, a passionate Liverpool supporter, was determined not to taint the game by associating it with these morons to the extent that even when they play a game at the beginning you never see the ball: the focus is firmly on the tribal, male bonding side of things, grunts and obscene gestures substituting for vocabulary – and by the end it’s become clear that football is merely a convenient excuse for a ruck: as Billy (Steve McFadden, rather better known as EastEnders’ Phil Mitchell) says at the end, if they ban them from football they’ll just switch to cricket, darts, anything that gives them the same excuse.

This is electrifying stuff, shot by Clarke with all the virtuoso Steadicam skill that he’d very much made his trademark, long, long takes giving the actors maximum room to breathe, improvise and interact (actors revered him as a director, and no wonder). It’s just as riveting in the quietly menacing domestic scenes as it is in the more adrenalin-fuelled action set-pieces, and despite the film’s tabloid reputation, onscreen violence is largely restrained so that when it comes – a cheek slashed open with a Stanley knife, a nearly fatal accident involving Bexy’s toddler son – you can barely watch it: far from the “buzz” craved by Bexy and his gang, this stuff really hurts, and Clarke means it to.

Tragically, this was Clarke’s last film – he died in 1990, just as he was on the verge of making his first American feature, and his contemporaries like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh were moving back into big-screen films. Had he lived, he would not only have been in the vanguard of a revitalised British film industry, but his name would be infinitely better known than it is – although he was one of Britain’s most prolific directors, rarely making less than two films a year, most of them were shown just once on the small screen. So it’s good that DVD distributors are giving them a new lease of life – this is the fourth Clarke disc to date, after Scum, Made in Britain and Rita, Sue and Bob Too – but how does The Firm fare on the format?

It’s probably a safe bet that many of the people buying this will already have bought Carlton’s Made in Britain – and if that applies to you, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect, as print and transfer quality are pretty much identical. It is of course in 4:3 – as a BBC production made years before the advent of widescreen TVs there’s no earthly reason why it would have been anything else – so the lack of anamorphic enhancement is not a problem.

The somewhat desaturated colours ring true to the original, and the picture is commendably sharp, with a surprising amount of shadow detail (just look at the fight in the underground car park). True, this means that the film grain is pin-sharp as well, but this is a result of Clarke’s fondness for shooting on high-speed 16mm in natural light rather than any defects in the transfer. There was no significant digital artefacting that I could see, and the condition of the print is excellent: a few very minor spots and scratches, but nothing remotely distracting.

I was surprised to see the sound labelled as “stereo” on the back of the DVD case, given that Nicam broadcasts were still a few years away when this was made – and, sure enough, the actual DVD soundtrack turned out to be mono. Still, that’s all it ever was, and given that the film is overwhelmingly dialogue-based that’s absolutely fine. There are no sonic thrills to speak of, but the naturalistic recording is perfectly clear despite Clarke’s fondness for scrupulous authenticity when it comes to regional accents and dialects (this is just as well, given the lack of a subtitle option). And I have no quibble with the number of chapter stops: twenty for a film this brief is extremely generous.

In short, it’s hardly a state-of-the-art DVD, but it’s about as good a transfer as you could conceivably get for this film, and a vast improvement on anything previously available. Given the original material’s built-in limitations, it’s hard to imagine a disc of The Firm getting much better.

I do have one serious reservation, though, and that’s the price – an RRP of £15.99 is frankly absurd for an adequate transfer of a 4:3 mono film running just over an hour with no extras whatsoever – especially as Carlton’s Made in Britain offers subtitles and an animated menu and costs less than a tenner. As Bexy and his acolytes would doubtless say, “that is well out of ORDAH!” – and it’s a pity, because this may well put people off discovering one of the great British films of the 1980s.

Incidentally, if you want a great collection of extras, try the chapter on The Firm in Richard Kelly’s superb oral biography of Clarke (‘Alan Clarke’, Faber & Faber) – this has Oldman, Manville, Davis, producer David Thompson, Steadicam operator John Ward plus former Clarke collaborators Tim Roth and David Hare reminiscing about the film, its creation, its impact and its power. There’s no shortage of people wanting to talk about Clarke and his work, so it’s disappointing that this DVD doesn’t give them a voice.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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