This is one of a series of reviews of the BFI's box set. For the other reviews, in chronological order, go to:
Half Hour Story
George's Room/The Last Train Through Harecastle Tunnel/Sovereign's Company
The Hallelujah Handshake/To Encourage the Others
Under the Age/Horace
The Love-Girl and the Innocent/Penda's Fen
Penda's Fen (standalone release)
A Follower for Emily/Diane
Danton's Death/Beloved Enemy
Stars of the Roller State Disco/Contact
Some of what follows is revised and updated from my review from 2007 of 2 Entertain's previous DVD of The Firm here.
London. We first meet Clive Bissell (Gary Oldman) in his day job as an estate agent. It’s the late Eighties, and money is there to be had. But out of the smart suit, Bex (as he is known) is the leader of one of the capital’s foremost “firms”…of football hooligans.
The Firm was Alan Clarke's final film, both for the BBC and in his life. The subject matter went against what was a prevailing view of football hooliganism, that it was the preserve of often drunken youngsters. Instead as scriptwriter Al Hunter suggests, often it's a pastime for people holding down well-paid jobs...yuppies, in the parlance of the time. The Firm was inevitably controversial. Like its immediate predecessor Elephant (of which more below) it was made in 1988 and had its broadcast delayed by nearly a year. Clarke took the films' potential banning as a mark of perverse pride: he had of course directed Scum in 1977, which had been withheld by the BBC. In the event, the BBC made cuts to The Firm before it was finally broadcast late on a Sunday night, in BBC2's Screen Two slot, on 26 February 1989. It has so far had just one repeat showing, on 10 August 1991, as part of a short season following Clarke's death, a season which also included the first and so far only BBC showing of Scum.
Clarke and Hunter (who thought Clarke deviated overmuch from his script, which was based on first-hand research) do not overtly condemn Bex, which is something those opposed to the film had a problem with. But it’s hard to find him an admirable character. Despite a wife, Sue (Lesley Manville, who really was married to Gary Oldman at the time) and a young son (Albert Bentall, son of Janine Duvitski, who had played the lead in Clarke's earlier BBC film Diane), Bex is very much an overgrown adolescent, living for the “buzz” of Saturday afternoons and the fights. The film says a lot about men and masculinity and how it is made and reinforced. This has very little to do with football, as the “rucks” often take place away from the grounds. In fact, there is no professional football action to be seen in this film.
Yet Clarke and Ashton are honest enough to show that Bex does have a certain laddish appeal, if not charm then certainly charisma, helped no end by Gary Oldman’s performance in the role. You can understand how someone like him came to lead this gang. Many of these men are not the disaffected youngsters you’d expect, but men in their thirties who have made money during the Thatcher years. It’s a small but telling detail that Bex, when buying train tickets to Birmingham for his “firm”, makes a point of travelling first class. References to Harry Enfield’s then-current character Loadsamoney – which Southern football fans used to chant to visiting Northerners – does date the film, but only superficially. They probably use social media now, but hooligans like this are still with us, and while they are this film will not date in its essential aspects.
The Firm makes extensive use of the Steadicam, especially recalling his 1983 film for ITV, Made in Britain, a film which in subject matter and approach anticipates The Firm in many ways. The scenes of violence, though toned down, are still unsparing: you can’t watch Yusef (the late Terry Sue Patt, previously best known as Benny Green in Grange Hill) having his face slashed without flinching. Which is as it should be: Clarke abhorred violence but had no qualms about showing it honestly. Another aspect of Clarke’s talent was his skill with actors, and that’s much in evidence here, with fine work not just from Oldman but also from the rest of the cast, many of them unknowns, all of them convincing. Philip Davis, a Clarke regular, plays rival gang leader Yeti: he went on to direct his own film on a similar subject, the overrated i.d.. And it’s not just the men: watch Lesley Manville’s final scene for a fine example of telling the audience everything they need to know without any dialogue. In some ways, she's the heart of the piece, something Clarke recognises by finishing several scenes on her.
The Firm was preceded by Elephant (37:40), which had its delayed broadcast – its only one to date – on BBC2 on 25 January 1989. The title is explained by an opening caption quoting Bernard MacLaverty: it describes the Irish Troubles as the elephant in the room, large and impossible to avoid, but after a while you do not notice it nor comment on it. With no writer credit, no characterisations (we never know on which side the killers or victims are on), or indeed any dialogue at all other than some mumbled lines during a football game, Elephant pares down its subject matter to the point of abstraction. For thirty-eight minutes, we see killing after killing: on doorsteps, in abandoned buildings, in restaurants and shops. All filmed in lengthy takes with Clarke's trademark prowling Steadicam (operated as ever by John Ward), often cutting to a closeup of a gun going off, or to a long-held shot of the corpse. One after the other, though there is a progression of sorts given that we are moving up the social scale in then-contemporary Northern Ireland – and, unlike Clarke's earlier Irish-set drama Contact, was actually filmed there.
You could argue that the point is made after five or ten minutes, but the film runs nearly forty, and the repetition is the point. The intention from Clarke and his then-Irish-based producer Danny Boyle (who had only just become a director himself) was to show that the killings were a fact of life, and one people living elsewhere in the UK would not be aware of, as the media concentrated on the killings of soldiers and mainland bombings and seemed to regard the shootings of Irishmen by Irishmen of no interest. The original intention was not to show the film in Northern Ireland, but it was shown there as well as everywhere else in the country, which provoked controversy covered in the extras described below. Gus Van Sant reused the title (with Boyle's permission) for his own 2003 Palme d'Or winning film about American high-school shooting and in his turn used the lengthy Steadicam takes that Clarke had used.
When he completed The Firm Clarke complained of backache. It turned out to be nothing of the kind. He was diagnosed with cancer, and died of it on 24 July 1990 at the age of fifty-four.
The Firm is released on both Blu-ray and DVD by the BFI. A checkdisc of the former was supplied for review; resolution apart, the discs' contents are identical. The same discs are also the final disc in both the six-disc DVD set Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC Volume 2 (1978-1989) and the limited-edition thirteen-disc (eleven Blu-rays, two DVDs) Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989). The Blu-ray is encoded for Region B and the DVD for Region 2.
The Firm is one of the reasons why the boxsets as well as this disc carry an 18 certificate. Elephant has been passed 15 by the BBFC.
The Firm has been released on DVD in the UK before, in the 2007 2Entertain release reviewed by me (link above) and in a bare-bones 2001 release from Second Sight, reviewed by Michael Brooke here.
This disc contains two versions of The Firm: the broadcast version (66:59) and the director's cut (68:06). The latter reinstates cuts made by the BBC from Clarke's workprint. Some of these are to tone down scenes of violence, especially a face-slashing at 29 minutes and another at 52 minutes and the pub fight at the film's climax. Others reduce the number of "fucks" on the soundtrack (25 minutes, 40 minutes). The major addition is a scene between Bez and Sue where an argument escalates into what at first looks like sexual assault but turns out to be part of their erotic gameplaying. A final closeup of a gun at the end is replaced in the broadcast version with a final scene with Sue, which to my mind is an improvement.
Both Elephant and The Firm were shot in 16mm, using natural light where possible and a deliberately muted colour scheme. The HD transfers are transferred from the original negatives. As both productions were shot at twenty-five frames per second for PAL TV broadcast, the Blu-ray resolution is 1080i50. I have no complaint about either. Inevitably, due to the natural light there's grain, especially in darker scenes, and the results are a little softer than present-day HD video would be, but none of that is untoward, given the films' origins, and colours and skintones seem natural. The additional shots and scenes in the director's cut of The Firm, added from the workprint, are quite noticeable, with higher contrast and grain.
Both films have LPCM 2.0 soundtracks. Experimental TV broadcasts in NICAM Stereo had begun in the London area only in 1988. While I noted the 2007 DVD's soundtrack was mono, here The Firm's soundtrack extends to the surrounds as well as front and centre. Elephant is mono throughout. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing on the films but not the extras. Yes, they are on Elephant, though needless to say all they do is render sound effects for all but one scene.
Both versins of The Firm have audio commentaries. The one on the broadcast version is carried over from the 2007 DVD. It is moderated by TV archivist Dick Fiddy and features cast members Philip Davis and Lesley Manville and Dave Rolinson, author of a book on Clarke. This is a very good commentary: Davis and Manville’s memories are clear, and Rollinson brings a different perpective. The director's cut has a newly-recorded commentary by Gary Oldman. He starts rather hesitantly, sounding as if he is reading off a page, and never really warms up, though he does have interesting things to say. Elephant has a newly-recorded commentary featuring Danny Boyle with Mark Kermode. With a shorter running time, there are few dead spots, though Kermode's question about the meaning of the title seems to miss the opening caption – which Boyle doesn't seem to be aware is there either.
Next up is Alan Clarke: Out of His Own Lights (36:20), or rather Part Twelve of a new four-hour documentary on Clarke, which is split over the discs in the boxsets. This is made up of interviews covering both the films on this disc, plus as it is the final part Clarke's last days and his legacy, featuring those know knew him and/or worked with him: here Richard Kelly (editor of a book on Clarke), Clarke's daughter Molly, former partner Jehane Markham and colleagues Stephen Frears, David Rudkin, JohN Ward, David Leland, Sean Chapman, Brian Cox (the actor, not the television scientist), Phil Davis, Gary Oldman, Lesley Manville and then editor and now director John Strickland.
After Clarke’s death, BBC2 ran a retrospective season in July/August 1991. David Leland’s introduction to the repeat of The Firm (2:27) includes footage of Clarke as the “last word” to his last film.
Also on the disc is an interview with Clarke (10: 05), conducted in Los Angeles in 1989 where he discusses both Elephant and The Firm and the portrayal of violence on television. He was in Los Angeles when Elephant was broadcast, and on the BBC's viewer-feedback programme Open Air the next day, answers viewers by phone, many but not all of them finding the film pointless and offensive and suggesting it should not have been shown. In a later extract, Danny Boyle is present in the studio to defend the film. The extracts total 21:00.
The standalone release has no booklet, but the boxsets contain a 200-page book (complete in the limited Blu-ray set, split into two for the DVD sets). It begins with a foreword by Molly Clarke and an introduction by Danny Leigh and contains an essay on each film in the set. Nick James writes about Elephant and Richard T. Kelly on The Firm - both informative and appreciative accounts. (One nitpick: Kelly calls Terry Sue Patt's character Ismael when his name is actually Yusef.) Also in the book are colour stills, full credits for each film, details of the extras and transfer notes.