The Firm (from BBC’s Screen Two). 1989. Directed by Alan Carke. Written by Al Ashton (as Al Hunter).
Starring Gary Oldman, Lesley Manville, Phil Davis, Andrew Wilde, Charles Lawson, William Vanderpuye, Jay Simpson, Patrick Murray, Robbie Gee, Terry Sue-Patt, Nick Dunning, Nicholas Hewetson, Steve McFadden, Steve Sweeney, & Hepburn Graham. British Broadcasting Corporation.
Rated 13+. 67 minutes.
There are many films on the subject of football hooliganism. Some, many, are utter trash. Others are a good time. I personally enjoy and love Rise of the Footsoldier, despite its flaws. And also The Football Factory, among some others. Then there’s something like Alan Clarke’s one hour (and seven minute) film The Firm. This was his final production before his tragic death at the hands of cancer only a year later in 1990.
For a shorter than usual bit of cinema Clarke works wonders. Of course Gary Oldman does a fantastic job in the lead role of football hardman Bex Bissell. But it’s success is in huge part due to the excellent little script from the pen of Al Ashton (credited here with the surname Hunter). In only 67 sleek minutes the characters are compelling, most of all Bex, and there’s enough action to keep us hooked with the story. What’s funny is the fact there isn’t much of a story, other than that two rival hooligan gangs go head-to-head in a bid for power, supremacy, the right to brandish their big balls or whatever. Still, Hunter’s script with the direction of the ever excellent/wise Clarke makes for entertainment. Not the type of entertainment a blockbuster summer movie provides. Rather the entertainment of real life, the kind that helps bring us closer to a subject. Not every moment is exciting because it’s easy to watch. In fact, there are moments to which you’ll find incredibly hard to relate. Clarke makes the working class, the lower class, the middle class, interesting to watch instead of feeling as if we’re watching day to day life. Even though we are.
It’s the way in which the subject is presented that makes Clarke and his work so good. I mean, who else could make a film about football hooligans without a frame of any actual professional football? This one is all about the lads that take football more serious than life; it is life. We see them play a bit, but never their club for which they fight so dutifully. It’s every bit about their lives, especially the ones they live outside the sport – insofar as their entire existence is determined and informed wholly by football.
Much as I enjoy some of his roles playing American characters, Oldman has a great natural accent. His British sounds delightful to me. I’m a fan of the British tongue, all the various dialectic sounds from the different regions. There’s something about his South London accent that is endearingly articulate and yet also can dip into that cockney everyman chat, the latter of which is perfect for Bexie’s particular sort of charm. What I enjoy is that Oldman is so often credited as acting with a very big style that’s full of flair. While a little of that is on display here, Oldman does well with his casual nature here. Yes, the angry and volatile attitude is still there. Totally. However, there’s an element about Bexie, specifically as he plays the well-spoken, well-tempered leader to his crew of hard bastards, that is so subdued. He keeps everything below the surface. That makes the contrast between his two lives – the one at home and the one with his hooligan crew – all the more drastic, in an intriguing way. Just seeing Oldman cross the threshold from the outside world into that locked room of his, the inner world of the hooligan, it’s fascinating.
Again, I love that there’s no professional football shown in the film. Clarke and Hunter are able to make the focus of these men’s lives become so clear. That is, like a man on a television program that Bex and his firm watch says, this is really not about teams or football pride at all. It is about compensating, about being lost and searching for an identity. “Why don‘t they just tell ‘em we like hitting people?” one of the boys crows while they watch television. They don’t even know what it is that drives them. Clarke’s film gets at the heart of the simple lives he shows us. Bex likes to hit people, sure. More than any of that he enjoys the control and the power it affords him. He has a place in the world, not just in the middle to lower class being torn apart by Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. All that really starts to crumble when Bex’s bloody, violent life comes literally knocking at the door of his own home. His child picks up one of his blades and just about cuts his lips off, which not only results in physical injury but the emotional rift between him and his wife. That’s the beginning of the end, really. Afterwards the control starts to slide, the power fades, and soon Bex is left with nothing much at all to call his own. Least of all a life of any kind. Without spoiling the end, it’s tragic. Only in the sense Clarke makes clear throughout the film there is another way out. Bex and guys like him just aren’t willing to see it, or even begin thinking about working towards it. “What‘s so wrong with being normal?” Bex’s wife pleads with him; that’s one of the only questions he just can’t seem to answer.
This is absolutely one of the best football hooligan pictures out there. Maybe the pinnacle, even. I can’t disagree with all the other reviews out there saying the same. The Firm is built on the power of Oldman and his acting talent, there’s no doubt about that. He sells every last frame where you see his face. At the very same time, both Clarke and Hunter make this a powerful work on the subject of hooligans. Clarke’s realism combines well with the script. We get a slice of life from the middle to lower class, out of a world where faux masculinity and pumped up heroes are commonplace. We look into the rough and tumble world of the uber violent hooligan gangs fighting for the pride of their club. Or is it really just a bunch of angry young men, raging against the world, against Margaret Thatcher and all the politicians like her? Isn’t it just a bunch of scared, powerless, testosterone-filled wannabe alpha males living a life into which they feel forced by the powers around them? Somewhere between all of it lies the truth. And Clarke does his damnedest to get to the beating, honest core.