The Firm (1989), dir. Alan Clarke

firm

Alan Clarke’s TV dramas remain a staple of 1980s television for bringing us thought provoking drama; an era which fought Thatcherism and showcased minorities and council estates in Andrew Cartmel’s Doctor Who, and presented viewers at home with the dystopian visions of Threads (1984).

As the BBC focuses its home video releases towards BBC Store, we rely on the BFI for HD restorations. The Firm brings out a lot of colour, especially compared to Elephant (1989), where the dull, misty grey skies and dark corridors of Belfast are unable to bring as much of an image to life as we get here. It’s remarkable the image the BFI has managed to get out of a 16mm print, and it’s a very welcome upgrade; it feels like it was shot in the 1980s, but it doesn’t feel like a videotape. Unfortunately, although the extended cut has some worthy additions (including some more sinister scenes with Bex, and a lot more blood), its faded, red-tinted image is inconsistent with the fully restored image of the rest of the film, still feeling very much a part of the workprint.

Gary Oldman’s performance as Bex, decades before his role as Commissioner Gordon, draws a lot of attention towards the film, but perhaps more notable is Steve McFadden’s portrayal of Billy, better known as Phil Mitchell in EastEnders (1985-present). It’s a joy seeing him here; every second, I expect him to yell out some cockney slang. Bex is entirely despicable, his character created through despicable acts. In one scene, he rapes his wife; yet their relationship is complex. She regains the power, laughing as a control mechanism, forcing herself on top of him. In an earlier scene in the extended version, she touches his erection, entirely of her own volition. In the most chilling scene, we see their baby use Bex’s Stanley knife as a toothbrush, bleeding out everywhere.

The Firm is a lot more fun than Elephant, and has its scenes of humour, yet still doesn’t shy away from the real issues. The final scene acts as a justification for the love of football, breaking the fourth wall by addressing the audience, whilst panning out to reveal Clarke’s camera crew, in a scene similar to the end of Monty Python and Holy Grail (1975). Bex’s death reveals the unreality of the film; the firm is but a shallow construct.

Elephant (1989), dir. Alan Clarke

Elephant is deliberately minimalist, stripping away dialogue and context to provide a brutal depiction of the Troubles in Belfast during the late 1980s.

It remains chilling viewing, yet I somewhat prefer Gus Van Sant’s approach. Clarke asks the audience to come to their own conclusions based on the stimulus on the screen, to spark a conversation about the “elephant in the room”. He kind of did: the film received heavy backlash upon its broadcast, especially from viewers in Belfast. (The extract from Open Air on the Blu-ray, interviewing Alan Clarke and Danny Boyle after the broadcast, is essential viewing for this background.) Whereas Van Sant’s approach was to speculate multiple reasons as to why the school shooting was carried out, leaving the audience to determine which factor they deem the most important or influential; both are thought pieces that leave ambiguity. The main difference is that Van Sant gave every character a background: both the killer and the victim. Here, everyone is a blank slate. The shooters pass for everyday people in casual dress.

But it’s clear the use of Steadicam influenced Van Sant, although here it reinforces the POV of the killers, building up to the suspense of who they may kill next. In Van Sant’s film, it built up suspense from the POV of the victim, leading up to what they may discover in the next classroom. Van Sant limited himself to a school and teenagers killing fellow students and teachers. The IRA don’t discriminate. Anyone, in any corner of Belfast, is not safe.

What is perhaps most impressive is the use of sound: despite the sparse dialogue, there’s an uneasy atmosphere from dogs barking to cars revving. Yet despite a sea of cars, there are no human voices to break the silence and raise the issue. The issue is as it appears on screen.

Elephant is worth watching, but it is a conversation starter, rather than the final word on the Troubles.