Review: The politics of defeat: FACE (DVD) Script by Ronan Bennet dir. Antoina Bird
31 October 2007
Ronan Bennet is the author of novels and is also a film and television script writer. He has had his failures but they are too few to mention. I shall not be reviewing his latest novel just yet, as there is another work by him that has been taking up a lot of my time - for the simple reason that it is masterpiece.
It’s called Face and it’s a film that Bennet wrote for the BBC. And if you don’t like reviews and want some thinking to go with your entertainment - get a copy, it will help make sense of this season of ill will that is now upon us. But I hope to try to persuade you to look out for things that you will not have seen at first viewing.
On first inspection Face looks like an ordinary ‘British crime thriller’ where the heist doesn’t go as planned. Only there is more going on than the mayhem that follows the gang’s robbery of a security depot. The ‘face’ of the title is that of the thief known to the police that is about to be ‘clocked’. But before we get to the heist, who are these people - these thieves? What made them become the people they are?
When in the opening scene the gang leader Ray (played by Robert Carlyle) accompanied by Dave (Ray Winston) go to lean on a heroin addict they appear to be nothing out of the ordinary.
They pretend to be the police just out to steal some heroin and appear to enjoy roughing up their victim, played by Gerard Conlon who was one of the Guilford Four. Just like the worst elements in any run down area who derive their power by intimidating and stealing from others – right?
Well no, because immediately you sense something odd has just happened. Gerard Conlon is known for his dramatic walk to freedom from the Old Bailey as a man wrongly accused. He is a victim here in the film and was so in reality where his crimes were fictions thought up by real police. This gives the narrative a hammer blow which later resonates inside Ray’s head as he drives away and recalls Conlon’s characters plea of: ‘leave me something!’, ‘leave me something!
But why should Ray even think about what he has just happened or what he has just done? Do these ruthless hard men have scruples? It appears they do, as we find out later when they pick up another gang member Jason (Damon Albran) who asks as they pass a demonstration, “what’s that all about?’ and Dave answers ‘the Kurds’, and is forced to explain what a Kurd is. ‘They are’ he says humanely, ‘people like you and me’.
But of course they are not, the Kurds are not like this gang of robbers who as citizens have rights. So what on earth is going on here? Why would a violent East End criminal identify himself as having anything in common with an ‘illegal’ immigrant?
This is where I call on the some direct cockney myself to help me out, as Julian the fourth member of the gang might have put it: ‘It’s errr, a watcha-ma-call-it errr, an allegory.’ And as one of the gang might have asked, ‘wot’s that when it’s at home?’
For although ‘home’ appears to be the heart of London’s East End in the film it is – I humbly venture to say – also the heart of Republican West Belfast.
The demonstration that the gang have just passed then has another role. In the film it represents Ray’s socialist past as we later see him in a flash back fighting for the miners against Tory vandalism.
It’s a past that Ray has now rejected as he confronts his mother who is still a socialist. ‘Haven’t you heard the news? He says, ‘They won!’ His mother (Sue Johnston) of course doesn’t agree ‘They haven’t won Ray. We are still fighting.’ But the demonstration can also be seen as representing the civil rights struggle here which was superseded by the IRA’s military campaign. The PIRA claimed that there was no other option available other than the ‘criminal conspiracy’ of urban guerrilla warfare. It would be a long war but these ‘criminals’ would in the end succeed in expelling the British State from Ireland.
Well things didn’t work out quite like that as the PIRA found out too late that they were not masters of their own destiny. Forsaking the socialist mass movement turned out not to be a good plan, as secret organisations can be infiltrated and their direction can be shaped by informers. The aims of the organisation can then be compromised and altered as we have seen. And so it is with Ray’s group of small operators who think that their planned heist will be the last they will need to put them where they want to be. Only they too have an informer in their midst who lets the plan go ahead so that he can then ‘thief off the thieves.’
Once the informer is found and is forced to tell his story there is then a frantic search for the money. Here Bennet pulls a master stroke as he turns the last 15mins of this great little film into a high speed version of Treasure of The Sierra Madre. The direction by Antonia Bird zips along with a good deal of help from the classic sound track (The Clash, Paul Weller).
The film has all the elements of a classic. Bennett’s excellent script acts as a fine vehicle for great performances from Robert Carlyle and his ragged underground, who given a slight twist can be recognised as people in our local landscape. It may also be the first sign of genuine artistic reflection on the failure of the republican struggle, on the present uneasy peace and on its discontents.
Make sure you see it.