Do you think you could hack it behind bars? If you’re a Daily Mail columnist you probably dispute the fact that prisons even have bars anymore. They’ve all been replaced you see, with tasty sticks of rock more in keeping with the dangerously liberal, comfortable satellite TV approach to treating filthy criminals. Being locked up is preferable to a five star hotel. Prisons are merely lavishly furnished warehouses for feral beasts that will be released back into the wilds of society unchanged. The fear factor has gone.
Bring back that shit yourself punishment and all of Britain’s ills will be cured. All this claptrap about human rights and civil liberties has been diluting the taste of our justice system since the 60s, so that it’s nothing more than a bitter sip of lemonade. Prisons should punish first and foremost, to act as a deterrent to the bad apples on the nation’s tree. When they fall they need to be crushed into a pulp and left to rot as an example to others; so the argument roughly goes.
Of course films are not the place to look for a frank and faithful look at the realities of prison life. Just because I’m put off a casual mugging by the possibility of gang rapes such as those in The Shawshank Redemption, doesn’t mean that actual perpetrators within the system encounter such things or that they are deterred by them. Cinema is a place for drama, tension and excitement. But a certain mould of gritty British drama always seems to capture something true about the cooped up existence of convicts, whatever the exaggerations.
In the case of Ghosted, the debut film of writer/director Craig Viveiros, the principal truth is that for many men, the haunting consequences of their crimes are punishment enough. There is also a heightened but believable look at the community of prison life, with its rival factions and dominating personalities pulling the strings. And much of the dialogue is insightful but understated, with main character Jack musing that, if nothing else, empty hours in a cell day after day give you plenty of time to think.
Jack (John Lynch) is a sensible prisoner, keeping his head down and away from trouble, serving his time. He is approaching the end of his sentence and desperate to get out to see his wife. But at the start of the film she fails to visit him and blanks him when he calls. Just as freedom is within sight his marriage collapses, destroying his hopes for a life on the outside. Gradually we find out more about Jack, eventually getting confirmation that his young son is dead. He burns most of his pictures of him because “sometimes the reminders are too hard in here”.
With just months until Jack is free, a new inmate arrives in the shape of young Paul, played by Martin Compston of The Disappearance of Alice Creed fame. Paul is immediately welcomed by the manipulative Clay, who is described on the marketing material as a “wing overlord”, which sounds like an all powerful evil super villain, but in reality just means a nicer cell, a mildly lucrative drugs racket and the odd fellow prisoner to bang. After the initial niceties Clay starts to use Paul, so Jack steps in and gets him moved to his cell.
This puts Jack in the firing line, resulting in some tense standoffs. The balance of the prison politics is disrupted and Clay is humiliated more than once, prompting him to get revenge. But despite the palpable sense of threat, the really interesting part of Ghosted is the relationship between Jack and Paul.
Jack is the heart of Ghosted and Lynch relished playing him, praising the creative talents of newcomer Viveiros: “It’s been a long, long time since I read a script that’s centred absolutely one hundred per cent on the characters”. In return the director praises his cast who “pumped blood into the story”. Both men are right.
Ghosted is well acted, with even the thugs coming across as something more than just two dimensional bad guys; they have their vulnerabilities too. But Ghosted is also well written and confidently directed so that it does not feel like a debut. Some of the scenes in which Jack and Paul open up to each other, often simply discussing old memories such as when Jack was in Brazil or when Paul was in care, are exemplary examples of characterisation rarely seen in today’s commercial world of cinema.
Ghosted is released in cinemas on the 24th of June and will be available on DVD from the 27th. See it to support a quality British drama with an all star cast, which simultaneously pays tribute to classic prison stories and approaches the issue from a new angle. Try to spot the emotional hammer blow of a twist at the end.
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It’s difficult to precisely pinpoint the moment I fully embraced the mantra “don’t get sad, get mad”. It may have been after my first THRRIP (Totally Humiliating Romantic Rejection In Public), or my second, third or fourth, or it may have been at the doctors after being diagnosed with yet another niggling ailment, or that time on holiday. Yeah that time. Anyway it’s an incredibly liberating and practically useful little philosophical phrase that never fails to help when intoned in worrying hushed tones to oneself at times of crisis. Normally it’s best to redirect your waves of gloom into stinging volleys of verbal venom at something or someone else. However if you can’t quite manage this straight away there is the intermediate stage of self-loathing as opposed to self-pity. It’s surprising how much better it feels to mentally pound yourself, the equivalent of smashing your knee caps to bits with a hammer, than to sit and curse your bad luck and the unfairness of the world and stay true to some ideal that ultimately makes you a worthless martyr. That’s a bit like watching Comic Relief in black and white without the Comic bits and you feel so guilty you want to ring up, only you can’t because you’re tied to a metal chair in a freezing igloo with only cockroaches and old copies of Bella with outdated fictions about the Loose Women for company. I mean you can find the fun in bashing anything with a hammer.
Obviously though it’s better not to destroy yourself, no matter how fun it is, but that’s the beauty of the mantra “don’t get sad, get mad”. Anger is far more productive than depressing sadness and can usually be channelled like a satisfying stream of hot piss as opposed to the dreary, relentless drip of sadness. If you let it that drip will erode your soul, whereas that stream of piss will just make it a stink for a while, and people will think you’re a prick, but you’ll feel better. Anger gets things done. They may not be worthwhile things but it will get you out of bed in the morning. Countless critics for example seem to make a living out of analysing and ripping to shreds pointless content, such as ITV’s new morning show Daybreak. I mean really who cares about its quality, who actually expected it to tackle the news seriously and intelligently as the producers claimed before the revamp? But what would be the point in collapsing into weepy hysterics about the futility of life, symbolised by Adrian Chiles’ empty autocue reading posture, or Sharon Osborne’s incompetence standing in for Loraine Kelly? Much better to write scathing, fury fuelled critiques that might just brighten the day of all those who tolerate such comfort TV, whilst secretly seething at its failings.
I have to say though that I have realised I was exaggerating to say I “fully embraced” the mantra “don’t get sad, get mad”. The little method outlined above to deal with life’s ups and downs really just dips its toes in the rivers of possibility. Michael Caine’s character Harry Brown, in director Daniel Barber’s 2009 debut of the same name, fully adopts the philosophy and dives deep into those waters out of grim necessity. Harry has more reason than most to be sad, and therefore extremely mad. He lives in London’s hellish underbelly and watches, his face illuminated in the gentle amber glow of the street lights, as his neighbourhood is terrorised and ruled by mindless thugs. And what really irks Harry is that they are totally mindless. Harry was in the Marines in Northern Ireland and saw ghastly things in that warzone, but that violence was always motivated by deeply held beliefs. In this modern hell he watches as his life is torn apart by bored teenagers, snatching filthy pleasures and dangerous highs where they can get them.
Caine was full of praise for Barber’s directorial skill on his debut after this film’s release and that praise is mostly justified. That is not to say his first film was perfect but it is a solidly gripping and at times moving tale. The film opens strikingly with a random shooting, seen from the frenzied perspective of drugged up youths on a fast moving, noisy bike. The incident comes to a crashing halt and despite the horror of it all the audience can feel the thrill and therefore the twisted motivation behind the criminals’ actions. Barber then swiftly contrasts this dizzying, dangerous high with the monotonous, lonely day to day existence of Harry Brown in his drab flat on a graffiti splattered estate, with only chess games at the pub and visits to his dying wife to fill the dragging bags of time. When Harry’s only real mate, his chess buddy, is murdered standing up to the thugs and the police investigation quickly stumbles in an excellent, frustrating interrogation scene, Harry resolves to begin unpicking the threads of his local underworld. Actually just to back up my earlier theory Harry tries drink first, feels sorry for himself and then is forced to act by a knife wielding hoodie. Sad first, then get mad.
Now if the idea of a pensioner getting things done, pulling out the roots of crime through strength of will alone, seems a little implausible to you, then you’re not alone. Even though it was Michael Caine, once so imposing in Get Carter, so assured in The Italian Job, I was sceptical. But Caine’s performance, vulnerable puppy dog eyes and all, ultimately draws you in. Indeed this is a very well acted production. David Bradley puts in a solid turn as always as Caine’s murdered friend but most impressive for me were the police officers involved in the investigation. Emily Mortimer’s well meaning Detective and streetwise Charlie Creed-Miles as her Sergeant make an intriguing double-act, whilst Iain Glen as the superior officer in charge is totally convincing in his brief scenes trundling out the official line with cold hearted efficiency. If the film has a weak point it is perhaps the crude characterisation of the yobs, whose performances are somewhat predictable. But then again the slightly heightened and simplified version of grim estate life may simply be making the point that scum exists and even the police recognise the best they can do is to be seen to be doing something about and to contain it within areas beyond help. The actions scenes, whilst not perfect, are hard hitting and gripping. The film builds to a climax in which the estate becomes a battleground, with shield wielding riot police standing helplessly against the hordes of savage youths. Again this feels simplified but the film concludes well with a satisfying twist. Barber definitely deserves more opportunities in the director’s chair, if only for the vivid vision of a grimy, sodden and hidden London that is present throughout.
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