The youngsters on the bus to juvenile prison are introduced in close-ups so tight the camera can only pan down to their shackles; later on, a reverse tracking shot roams spaciously as Ray Winstone fills a sock with billiard balls, walks to fellow inmate Phil Daniels, and smashes his noggin in, one single take. To Alan Clarke both movements are equally entrapping -- the camera moves, but there's no escaping the systematic maws of soul-crushing regimes. Prisoners are welcomed with punches, tribal lines are set up amid inmates, violence lurks in mess halls, basketball courts, ping-pong tables; Winstone bids his time and takes his blows, then brutally snatches "daddy" honors away from John Blundell by bashing his mug in the lavatory (another extended tracking shot). Mick Ford, who walks barefoot in the cold ("I'm a vegetarian"), prefers smart-ass acerbity to brutality as a means of rebellion, so when St. Francis of Assisi is suggested by the housemaster, he responds with a certain growing interest in Mecca; young Julian Firth, meanwhile, remains all too helpless to the Borstal horrors, and suffers multiple buggerings in the greenhouse while an officer gazes from the window. (Outside, "I AM HAPPY" is painted on the wall.) The prison brings contamination rather than purification, "character-building" is horseshit -- Ford voices the director's protest to a supervisor over a didactic cup of coffee, but the politicized anger with "institutional lies" is more pugnacious than Loach's. The BBC rejected Clarke's 1977 original, so the auteur cranked up the graphic punishment two years later for the theatrical version, which by then was ready to catch the stiffling smell of Thatcherism (Clarke's prison, like Losey's, crystallizes the societal rot on the outside). Blades dive into wrists, blood flows through white sheets and the halls are finally filled with rioting; the sounds of revolt are short-lived, and Clarke leaves with a brief glimpse of the bloody aftermath and one minute of silence, hypocritical and oppressive silence. With John Judd, Philip Jackson, Peter Howell, John Grillo, Ray Burdis, and Alan Igbon.
--- Fernando F. Croce