The Firm – “A love of the game or the love of an accepted brutality that goes hand in hand”

Euro 2016 is kicking off across France and news bulletins tell us about violence between British fans and other supporters. This is the perfect moment to reevaluate Alan Clarke’s The Firm. Acknowledging the joy of football, Clarke doesn’t shy away from the uglier side of the game as vandalism, abuse and dominance play its part in the support of a local team.

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From the moment The Firm starts, there is a romance surrounding the sport. Men on the field as Dean Martin’s ‘That’s Amore’ plays on the sound track is anything but subtle. This is in contrast with a malicious attack on cars and clothing in the changing rooms. The conscious, lingering question is whether it’s a love of the game or the love of an accepted brutality that goes hand in hand.

In this case, the supporters are West Ham fans. Clive “Bex” Bissell (Gary Oldman) leads a multi-cultural mix of men (including pre-Eastenders Steve McFadden) who feel the need to defend their team. In a meeting of minds, the different groups try to discuss how they will conduct themselves at a Birmingham match – and how they could become a national firm – but it descends into chaos. In the bar, they mock, insult and jeer at each other. On the streets of Birmingham, cars are smashed and young men slashed. We hear on news reels how there’s an awareness rising that football hooliganism is not limited to those in deprived areas. Bex is an estate agent; a married man with a young toddler. His wife has to contend with his violent outbursts with horrific ramifications on their poor defenceless child. Bex thrives on the status he has within his group and, when the truth is told, he ignores the reality of his “big fish, small pond” dilemma.

The Firm embraces the community football brings together but lifts the lid on the inner conflicts. Director Alan Clarke carefully weaves in an undercurrent of racial tensions within this masculine story of power and aggression. In one instance, a young black lad is insulted for sitting in first class and, though perceived in a friendly manner, Oldman adopts a Jamaican patois when speaking to the men of Caribbean descent. Minor characters linger in the group, clearly holding less respect towards multi-culturalism and justifying Observer critic Philip French’s description of The Firm as “a key text on the subject of Thatcher’s Britain”. It’s a well-balanced approach to the changes in the UK in the 1980’s, sensitively handled with nuance added to even the smallest of roles. But the language and pace spreads further, showing a clear influence on Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch (which, in turn led to a revival of football hooligan films including Football Factory and Nick Love’s remake of The Firm). As much as we detest these men, they are believable, engaging characters. They are misogynists by chanting “get your tits out for the boys”, referring to women as dogs and trading insults by referring to each other as girls, but they are sadly still recognizable stereotypes in 2016.

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In football hooligan movies (Eg. Phil Davies’ I.D. in 1995) the connection between football and nationalism become blurred. Bex believes he’s setting up a National Firm, and that through their support of West Ham, they are fighting a worthy cause. But between their mockery of rituals, smug kiss-off lines (e.g. “we come in peace, we leave you in pieces”) and a supremely selfish attitude (Rather than helping, “we’ll all get nicked” is the response to finding a comrade bloody and bruised) the politics are contradictory and hypocritical. While the UK struggle to define what patriotism and Britishness is, confusing citizens with our position within – or outside – the EU, The Firm scratches the surface underneath some poisonous opinions. As Shane Meadow’s This is England, took out the football element, but revealed similar violence within the same era, The Firm was there first. But Alan Clarke’s TV-movie is more about men and their desire for power and dominance and how dangerous that can be.

This was originally written for Flickering Myth in June 2016

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