I’m relatively new to Alan Clarke but thanks to the BFI’s recent mammoth box-set I’ve been swiftly correcting that oversight. The Firm is the first one I delved into and it’s an intense affair all around. I’ve never really had much interest in British made-for-TV productions (not snobbery, just happenstance) but Clarke really made the form just as artistically valid and exciting as its big-screen counterparts.
The Firm is an angry, violent piece of work. As a peek into a particularly nasty British sub-culture (football hooliganism) the film feels immediate and authentic. The characters here aren’t likeable but there’s a sense of what makes them tick as well as a peek into the deeper aspects of their lifestyle. The BBC butchered Clarke’s director’s cut to soften its rough edges but when presented uncut, the film gains a crucial scene. Bexy (Gary Oldman) returns home to his wife (Lesley Manville) one night and apparently rapes her. But after a few moments we realise this is simply a role-play the two have acted out many times before. It’s easy to peg Bexy as the root of all evil, but with a wife who finds his demonic streak attractive and actively encourages it when it suits her, the conversation becomes far more complex.
Gary Oldman’s livewire performance as Bexy is incredible. He was on such a roll at this point in his career that there’s a convincing argument to be made for him being the most exciting British actor in the world. He seemed like lightning in a bottle, always unpredictable and dangerous. I can picture the cameramen shaking during takes, just out of fear that Oldman’s fury might miss its target and impact them rather than the lens. It’s difficult to imagine Oldman as anything other than a volatile hot-head in his youth, given all the sinister characters he portrayed during that time. He is one of my favourite actors and every new performance of his I encounter I feel proud to be alive to watch his career continue and unfold. Manville too is very good. She’s another British institiution, famous for her collaborations with Mike Leigh (or at least that’s how I best know her). She disappears into every role I’ve seen her in. It always takes me a wikipedia search or two to remind me where I’ve seen her before, not because she’s forgettable, but because she’s just so invisible and convincing. She was actually married to Oldman at the time, which makes their joint performances here even more fascinating.
Clarke’s quest for naturalism in locale and casting, paired with his sweeping steadicam shots transforms The Firm into something far more than a mere “hot topic” BBC film. It is stylish, ugly and real at the same time. The violence (again, best experienced in Clarke’s preferred version) is truly spine-tingling and the film refuses to pull any punches in its darkest stretches. It has lost none of its power in the 27 years that have elapsed since it was first broadcast. Even arriving to it as late as I have, I found it to be a riveting and thought-provoking watch.