Alan Clarke’s The Firm presents an uncompromising look at life under Thatcherism, and how mostly middle-aged, married working men go in search of rucks simply ’cause they like “the buzz”. Not to be confused with Nick Love’s 2009 remake or the 1993 legal thriller starring pretty-boy Tom Cruise, Clarke’s made-for-TV film is gritty and realistic in its depiction of 1980s Britain, as well as the personal/social consequences that come with using football violence as a way of obtaining some form of personal satisfaction.
As much as I enjoy The Football Football Factory for “romanticising” the hooligan subculture, Clarke’s film feels very much dark and unglamorous in its reflection of life in the firm. There are no flashy visuals, over-choreographed fight scenes or even music (opening credits aside); instead, there is a real sense of bleak, grinding misery as a consequence of the Thatcher reign, with the characters resorting to football hooliganism as their form of rebellion.
Don’t get me wrong, the medium of rebellion that the characters choose in The Firm is not one we’re encouraged to provide a sociological diagnosis of, or even sympathise with. Simply put, the characters enjoy a good fight, with the politics of the era serving only as a backdrop to the violence; and Clarke provides an insight into the self-destructive nature of hooliganism as a reflection of the time.
Gary Oldman heads the cast as “Bex” with, arguably, the best performance he’s ever done. He’s masterfully sadistic, portraying a man struggling to separate his family life and nine-to-five working routine from his weekends out with the lads. Bex is an estate agent who doesn’t appear to be struggling financially, but he has no sense of purpose in what he does. The frustration the character has — mainly with himself — to do something worthwhile is evident with Oldman’s fiery, self-conflictive nature.
The Firm follows Bex and co as they meet up and scrap with other firms on the streets (as opposed to going inside grounds to support their favourite team on match days). It is such that the actual sport of football features very little in The Firm; and most times, the hooligans aren’t moralistic or even united in what they do (many of them are seen abandoning one another when they are violently outnumbered by other firms).
Scriptwriter Al Hunter views the common football hooligan as a simple-minded lout outside of the “normal”, working lifestyle. The most notable piece of dialogue comes when the firm members are gathered around the TV listening to the detailed analysis of a middle-class sociologist. “Why don’t they just tell ’em we like hittin’ people?” says one of the crew in response; and with such a line it becomes clear that The Firm makes no attempt to be anything other than direct in its chosen subject.
We witness a number of violent altercations involving the hooligans’ fists, Stanley knives and baseball bats; as well as many verbal battles between crews in an attempt to “outdo” one another. There is no race element, as such, as the firms are made up of black and white members; but the sexism and homophobia is rife, with much of the dialogue insulting opposition members about their (apparent) lack of masculinity.
As a result of the hooligan’s behaviour, other people do suffer, though — most notably, Bex’s wife (Lesley Manville) and their infant son, who comes into contact with a Stanley knife left around the house (the film’s most hard-to-watch scene). While Bex’s wife is deliberately offered very little in terms of screen time to speak out against the pointlessness of her husband’s violent lifestyle, the consequences of the character’s actions are made clear in a surprising (if overdone) finale.
It is worth noting, also, that there is a complete lack of condemnation from Bex’s father towards his son’s hooliganism; and his mother is never actually seen at all (only heard in the background). This is Clarke’s way of saying the hooligan lifestyle is self-centred and destructive — a product of the existential nihilism existing under 1980’s Thatcherism (and, indeed, Britain’s Capitalist society in the modern day).