Joshua Reviews Alan Clarke’s Scum [Blu-ray Review]


Best known as one of today’s most entrancing and brutish character actors, Ray Winstone has gone from being a consummate Brit “That Guy” to a co-star in some of the biggest films around ranging from Scorsese crime pictures (The Departed) to an Indiana Jones sequel. However, those familiar with the thespian only through his recent work on this side of the pond may be shocked to find out that he not only had a thriving career in the UK, but led one of the most controversial pictures in British cinematic history.

Entitled Scum, the picture is one of a handful of features made by beloved cult legend Alan Clarke and has now finally been brought to Blu-ray thanks to the folks at Kino. Winstone stars as a young man named Carlin who, upon arriving at a borstal (basically a juvenile detention center), not only discovers that life inside the institution is full of violence but that he must take his protection into his own hands. A visceral and often times difficult-to-watch meditation on the brutal life of juvenile institutions like this in the UK, the film looks at topics ranging from rape to racism, and just about everything in between, in what may be one of the most intense “angry young men” pictures ever made.

Taking the youthful angst of a film like If… to its logical, Kubrickian extreme, Clarke’s film is a brutish drama that is as engrossing as it is off-putting. Visually muted and disturbingly quiet, the film has the icy cold aesthetic of a Kubrick picture (think the dream sequences found within a film like A Clockwork Orange) and yet has the lyricism and beauty of a Gus Van Sant film. Filled with breathtaking tracking shots, this film is extremely touch to watch and yet impossible to turn away from. The photography here is gritty and realistic, often finding roots within neo-realist cinema, but with a haze and a grime found within late ‘70s-early ‘80s British film.

An intensely angry picture, Winstone’s lead character is a perfect physical manifestation of the overall ideas behind this film. Able to turn on a dime (take a sequence in which a series of physical altercations is followed by a calm Carlin pleading his innocence), Winstone’s performance is just an early example of the type of energy that he brings to every picture, even a voice acting turn in a film like Beowulf. He adds a lot to the film, as does a supporting cast including the likes of Mick Ford and Julian Firth. The entire cast is asked to do a large amount of extremely heavy lifting, but proving to be up for the task, each and every moment is felt with heavy weight and a great deal of emotional power.

It’s also a brazen film thematically. Ostensibly a meditation on the nature of violence, the film is rather cut and dry about its stance on the topic (even down to the position of the adults in a society), and the blunt nature with which it handles this topic is thrilling and engaging. The themes may be a bit more hidden by the often difficult to comprehend Brit accents and the disturbingly brutal violence, but for those who can take in the horrors being shown on screen, the film is a truly great conversation starter about the nature of violence.

And thankfully, Clarke’s masterwork is given a grade-A update thanks to this new Kino Blu-ray. While only the theatrical cut is included (a BBC cut was banned from airing, ultimately being re-cut with new scenes for this theatrical version), the transfer here is fantastic on both and audio and a visual level. The hazy photography is given new life here, and while the accents are still sometimes tough to understand, the transfer does its best to clean that up. Winstone hops on a commentary track that is rather insightful with regards to the making of the picture, and the likes of producers Davina Bellling and Clive Parsons, writer Roy Minton and executive producer Don Boyd all show up in respective interviews. Toss in brief interviews with cast members and a handful of trailers, and you have a rather extensive release of one of the most controversial dramas ever put to screen.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.