This is the story of rival “football firms” (also known as “hooligan firms”) in the 1980s, and Alan Clarke’s last movie. Clive Bissel (nicknamed “Bex”, or “Bexy”, and played by a young Gary Oldman, in one of his most acclaimed performances) is a married man with a baby child. His wife Sue (Lesley Manvill) severely disapproves of his violent and dangerous activities as a football hooligan, which stark contrast to his respectable job as a dandy estate agent.
Bex wishes to unite with rival local “firms” for a face-off against the Dutch for the European Championships of 1988. The opposing leaders, however, view this as a challenge to their authority, and unprecedented violence quickly unfolded. The Firm clearly exposes how hooliganism progressed from pure violence to a form of organised crime in the 1980s, when it became a major social problem in the UK.
The tactics of the warring “firms” range from the puerile to the extreme. They prance, wail and hoot like little children, but they carry and use very dangerous weapons. In fact, they have a collections of arms, including truncheons, sledge hammers, wrenches, Stanley knives and revolvers. They also have the habit of vandalising property and cars with graffiti and fire. Towards the end of the 70-minute-long film the violence escalates to such an extent, that tragedy seems increasingly inevitable
As usual, violence in Clarke’s movie is very graphic and disturbing. There is plenty of kicking, punching, blood and open wounds. As in Scum (1979, read our dirty review of the movie here) and Made in Britain (1983, click here), the film protagonist is full of hatred and anger, and it is not entirely clear where they came from, as Bex has a stable family life and a decent job.
Nearly all the violence in Clarke’s movies is perpetrated by men, and The Firm is no exception. There is an exaggerated and grotesque masculinity invariably combined with the violence. The hooligans scream, gnarl and twerk their faces in a bizarre and animalistic display of power. This is the antithesis of British cordiality and courteousness.
The feigned masculinity and the violence are not the only repulsive behaviours in the film. There are also elements of homophobia and plenty of sexism. At one point, a hooligan claims “every woman has the right to be ugly but this one abused her privilege”, and at another point they throw their drinks on a slightly chubby exotic dancer.
In a way, Clarke’s last film is representative and prescient of europhobia and Brexit angst. The hooligans have a clear dislike of Europeans, and their sense of superiority is very loud and clear, and not confined to football, not too different to Nigel Farage’s rhetoric.
The Firm is a very strong film about a very serious social problem. It questions how this country picks its working-class heroes, without being a moralising tale. It also has problems: the narrative is very complex and sometimes a little disjointed, and some cultural and historical knowledge is necessary in order to fully grasp the movie.
Alan Clarke’s The Firm is a part of ‘Dissent & Disruption: The Complete Alan Clarke at the BBC (Limited Edition Blu-ray Box Set)’ out at the end of the month, which also includes the other movies mentioned. You can pre-order it now by clicking here. Alternatively, you can also watch the film online on the BBC website here.