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.