Get Carter (1971)

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‘Get Carter’ is certainly an icon of British miserablism, however my most recent rewatching left me unimpressed.

I love British films of the 60s and 70s. Everything’s very grey and very brown and the characters are thoroughly downbeat and pessimistic; there’s also vile patterned wallpaper everywhere.  The visceral kitchen sink drama is a British trademark that can still be found in later films such as Gary Oldman’s ‘Nil by Mouth’ (1997) and Paddy Considine’s ‘Tyrannosaur’ (2011).

‘Get Carter’ is an icon of British miserablism, I first saw the film on TV when I was quite young, I liked it. I’ve had it on DVD for years and always regarded it as a nasty, hard hitting classic. However, after watching it again in 2013, I was left rather deflated.

There’s no doubt that it continues to be drab and nasty. The abject horror of 60s architecture can be seen throughout the film; I think the brutalist architects of the 50s and 60s did more damage to our landscape than the Luftwaffe. ‘Carter’ really corroborates the saying ‘It’s grim up north’, as the film’s great climax shows that even the beaches can’t escape the polluted, achromatic hell of the city. (I’m pleased to see that the beach has since been completely cleaned up)

Despite this, the problem at its core is simply age, it has dated badly. The violence has no punch, quite literally; the choreography of Caine’s beat-downs on various enemies is unconvincing and in some instances just risible. The worst example of this is when Carter manages to catch someone’s fist and slap him round the face in a scene that is horrendously edited. There’s also a moment where he lunges towards a woman (who cannot act) in a café and wraps his hand around her throat in a highly orchestrated fashion.

All of this amateurism is exacerbated by how, in this film at least, Michael Caine is not an intimidating figure. In ‘The Long Good Friday’ (1980), Bob Hoskins is short, stocky and has a very bad temper, however Caine, whilst cool and moody, is rather lanky and weak.

The script is also dated, it’s all ‘bloody’ this and ‘you’re a git’ that. While there’s no doubt that the British have an affinity for such words, it felt like the script was under the gaze of Mary Whitehouse (Well, someone more lenient actually, the ridiculous Whitehouse would even object to the lexicon of Get Carter)

Aside from its age, I also found the story weak. It is basic, which can be great, however as the characters and their relationships are so unremarkable, Carter’s straightforward revenge narrative suffers. I didn’t particularly care for Carter and his cause, he’s a blandly nasty character meting out justice to other equally flat characters.

Caine is fine as Jack Carter; he has moments of great anger, especially in an emotional outpour in the film’s final minutes. Outside of these moments however is a rather standard hard man stock character performance.

While ‘Get Carter’ is still bleak and perhaps captures the zeitgeist of 70s working class Britain, it is rather dramatically unaffecting. After years of thinking it was a great film, I was left unimpressed by its lack of character development, its collection of poor supporting performances and its dated action and script. The shocking climax on that foul, polluted beach and Roy Budd’s fantastic score are still high points, though.

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Scum (1979)

ScumA damning depiction of rehabilitation, hierarchy and corruption.  

Despite being released over 30 years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Scum has lost none of its punch. ‘Scum’ is an unforgiving portrait of the British borstal system – 1 hour and 30 minutes of both physical and psychological abuse.

The film examines the hierarchy of the borstal, looking at the behaviour and roles of both the officers and the inmates, questioning who’s worse. This hierarchy is ruptured when Carlin (Ray Winstone) enters the borstal. Carlin claims to be looking for ‘no trouble’, but really he is equally or even more pugnacious and skullduggerous than the rest.

Much like ‘Cool Hand Luke’ and ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’, ‘Scum’ explores the infuriating frustration of injustice in ‘correctional’ institutions. Personally, I find few things worse than the abuse of power, whether it’s within an institution, a family or any other context. I’m sure many would agree, subsequently making ‘Scum’ an engrossing and unpleasant watch for all.

Asides from Carlin, the most significant character is Archer (Mick Ford), an intelligent, disaffected vegan who is a habitual troublemaker. Archer serves as an interesting plot device; he offers intelligent, biting monologues on the flaws of the institution, most notably to an officer’s face, who retaliates by reducing their civil conversation into another officious, hostile procedure.

It’s Carlin’s arrival, growth and ultimately tenure as ‘The Daddy’ that serves as the central narrative of the film, but thematically the film acts as a condemnation of the borstal system and its corrupt, vindictive employees. One may wonder if the film is hyperbolic, but the borstal system was abolished by government in 1982, replacing it instead with ‘Youth Custody Centres’. This corroborates Scum’s credibility.

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Lilya 4-Ever (2002)

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A powerful, sympathetic film about poverty. 

‘Lilya 4-Ever’ is hugely bleak. You shake your head as Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) is manipulated and abused. I read somewhere that this film is ‘torture porn’, nonsense, despite the sleazy, damning impression it leaves on you, it’s a very tastefully made film. It’s unremittingly depressing, but always tasteful.

It’s somewhat one-track in its storytelling; almost everyone is callous, abusive and indifferent about Lilya’s well-being, none more so than her mother, who deserts her, initiating Lilya’s dive into veritable squalor. I can understand how these people are going to be embittered by their tough, filthy neighbourhood, but some of the characters’ cruelty and selfishness border on evil. Her only friend is Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky), a young admirer of hers who is always thinking in her best interest. The young pair give terrifically natural performances, which help achieve the film’s aura of hyperrealism.

Much like films such as ‘Import/Export’, the camera captures the arresting, achromatic landscapes of Eastern European housing projects.

The total deprivation in this film makes one appreciative of not only family and friends but basic commodities too. Lilya is thrown into aworld of abject poverty, where the living conditions are so desperate that we see her attempting to sell her few, worthless possessions on a street corner. Lilya and Volodya frequently talk about a better life, but they’re both so tragically far away from their fantasies. Inevitably, she discovers that prostitution is the most lucrative way of assuring she has the resources to be able to live and maybe even achieve her dreams.

Throughout the film, I wanted to reach into the screen and cradle the sweet little Oksana Akinshina, attacking anyone who wanted to exploit her for whatever disgusting purpose. The film puts an innocent, sympathetic face on prostitution, an industry that’s unfairly maligned and condemned by society. In fact, the film puts an innocent, sympathetic face on the underclass; its candid hyperrealism gives you a vivid portrait of total and utter destitution, helping you understand and empathise with their lamentable lives.

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