Scum (1979)

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Alan Clarke directs Ray Winstone, Mick Ford and Philip Jackson in this unflinching look at Borstal politics, that became a hardman cult classic. 

Cor! There’s a visceral thrill watching a pudding faced Winstone endure the grind of being a new inmate with a reputation at the young offenders unit. He bides his time, takes his knocks and when his opening to take power, become “THE DADDY”, presents itself we follow him, we are hot on his shoulders, almost like suddenly we are thrown into Birdman or Goodfellas, and tool up with him. Pool ball in sock, winding our way back and forth through the prison block. We are lashing back with him. Oof! Clarke captures that visceral rush, too well, in all honesty. He reveals all the depressing nastiness of an institution; you can feel the coal dust, smell the bleach, and see the strings controlling the warders controlling the bullies controlling the vulnerable. The first hour, with its quaint yet quotable extreme vernacular “You fuckin’ well do now, slag! There’s no dolly mixtures here, poofter!”, is about as thrilling as lefty, kitchen sink British cinema got. Its racism, violence and anti-authoritarianism is electric shock therapy compared to the nostalgic puddings we get now… old luvvies on Saga packages pretending they’re the queen herself. The narrative misses a step when it shifts its attention away from Winstone in the second half… the  gruelling tragedies it serves up in the woodshed deck scrubs all the laddish braggadocio away. The conclusion is a harsh shock too far if you watch Scum as a six pack and takeaway curry movie. But Clarke uses unrelenting grimness as his cinematic grammar. Making the anarchic and well read rebel character of Archer (brilliantly, sneeringly played by Mick Ford) such an almost surreal treat. As he cuts about all the nasty – shoeless, moaning about the lack of Dostoevsky novels and being vegetarian just to cause the screws extra hassle – he emerges as the piece’s true hero. Winstone, when he becomes THE DADDY is merely joining the governer’s pecking order, conforming to the low expectations society has for his like.

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