Michael Inside : A Film Review

 

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Michael Inside

Written and directed by Frank Berry. Cast : Dafhyd Flynn, Lalor Roddy, Moe Dunford, Robert Walsh, Steven Blount, Hazel Doupe, Tony Doyle, John Burke, Shane Gately, Stevie Greaney, Elaine Kennedy, Ally Ni Chiarain, Terry O’Neill, John Quinn.
Production Subotica, Write Direction Films, Bord Scannán na hÉireann/the Irish Film Board.
Produced by Donna Eperon, Tristan Orpen Lynch, Aoife O’Sullivan.
Executive Producer for Bord Scannán na hÉireann/ Irish Film Board, Keith Potter.

Cert. TBC (probably 15)  Duration 1hr 36mins.

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‘Michael Inside’

Press release
Michael Inside tells the story of Michael McCrea (Dafhyd Flynn), an impressionable eighteen-year-old who lives with his grandfather Francis (Lalor Roddy) in a Dublin housing-estate. Michael’s life is changed dramatically when he is caught holding a bag of drugs for his friend’s older brother, and is sentenced to three months in prison.
Researched and workshopped with former prisoners from the Irish Prison Service’s Pathways Programme, the story of Michael Inside is an expression of many real-life experiences. The film takes a realistic look at the circumstances that lead to Michael’s conviction, his time in prison, and how prison has affected his thinking and his behaviour when he gets out.

Truth on Irish Prison System deficiencies http://www.iprt.ie/key-issues from the Irish Prisoners Reform Trust (please read after review)

Structure
By keeping a tight focus on the narrative of the ‘rites’ of passage the story of Michael traces him into adulthood with his ‘life is changed dramatically’.  No longer a  juvenile he ends up in the Prison system instead of the youth system which then provides the revelatory, insight sought by the director of this part of the justice system and shown in all its complexities.  It is the portrayal of a life going into a spiral out of control, the chosen direction of Frank Berry in writing and making visible Michael’s life, he brings in all aspects of the journey.  It is well paced and the Prison element features only some way into it.  In the arch of the story at the beginning a wrong choice is made and Michael is enticed into helping a friend whose older brother is dealing drugs on a wholesale scale.  It is serious business and the act of crossover is shown in the brother been seen to be a fundamental part of the internal life of their neighbourhood.  The trade is all around kids of all ages and very few indicators of surveillance are present though somehow Michael is trapped.  From there onwards the story continues to follow the trail of downward struggles and the domestic interactions are finely woven into the film indicating boundaries.  There is throughout the film an exchange of place going on.  The Courtroom, The Police Station, The Prison environments, the outdoor rambling hills, the routes to and fro are used very effectively as frames for the story.  On the road and inside their is also the mediation in the mind of what is happening and why.

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Sense of a story
This is a story based in metropolitan Dublin in a city estate where most of the houses cover acres looking exactly the same. It focuses on an 18 year old whose life is moving in the right direction, after what appears to be a period where his Grandfather has moved in with him in the absence of his imprisoned father as we learn.  His mother’s not around either.  As we see the story going forward in the present we are filling in some elements for ourselves. I guessed that his Grandfather was no recent arrival and we are told Michael has been out of school previously, hence my saying he is moving forward, he is on the relearning path back attending school and with hopes of a professional qualification which he is well capable of achieving as encouraged by his teacher.  The cast in this film is unbelievable first class and very intelligently formed.  The young female teacher approaches the task of teaching Michael with warm encouragement swathed in reality and humorous mild cynicism for example.

For this story to form director Frank Berry has meticulously scoured the prisons and youth communities researching via. workshops, as noted on the Subotica and Write Direction Films press release, yet there is no laboured documentary replication or false dialogue in any scene.  He has taken the subject matter of the reality of contemporary life in the justice system and the conduits of social deprivation and lack of social development to shape a vision which goes beyond the mere postcode of Dublin.  The stories lineage is from the home to school to employment and self development, the absence of suitable role models and the historically corrupt system, presents that which envelops most youth, not given the learning opportunities and advantages of the ‘gameplayers’ whose sole interests seem embedded in their chosen corporate or government chosen level of existence.

The latitude of film making allows for and is representative for those without voices. This is a truth spoken on the complex state composition and boundaries which are challenges set before youth.

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What’s Inside
Michael Inside is both the internal mind and thinking of a young man as he sees each day. He is seen to be intelligent and diligent while his peers are a mixed less well equipped group and he hangs around sharing the outlook without options.

GAA is not on the horizon and handpicked sports other than boxing are off the radar. Michael is on the edge of trouble as it becomes evident the drugs scene around his postcode is strident and has his peers as bait and prey.
The Inside part of the shaping of the mind is very hard to convey. The way it is dealt with is through the learning experiences passed on through the generations. School is now re-engaged and this is read by Michael as attainable and within his scope and self understanding.

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Francis the carer
From the beginning of this film to the end you are never far from realty.  The story is based on those examined events and interviews/workshops found by Frank Berry of those in prison and outside.  The role of the central character is to maybe show the viewer that young person Michael as someone on the interior of a nightmare and live with it and it’s message.  Every scene is collected in a tangible tacit way with the viewer in almost within the story. Hard as it seems the closeness is delivered by the direction and cinematography which is devastatingly immersive.  There are the pacing scenes of the tracking outdoors and between places but mostly the scenes are as witnesses.

My early attention was drawn to the dynamic which is the relationship between Michael McCrea (Dafhyd Flynn), and his grandfather Francis (Lalor Roddy) because in itself it became a core balancing act of dilemmas facing each. The family now consists of them. It becomes evident the father is missing and incarcerated. Michael’s mother is no longer around and Francis is looked after by a paternal grandfather down from the North whose job it is to raise Michael in the parents absence.

This has been a programme of involvement appearing to have been in existence for some time. Francis and Michael help each other out with the day to day tasks. Another thing is the bond which is warm and positive. While there have been issues regarding education and breakdown there is in place a future which Francis sees developing with Michael on both their parts containing an outlook determined to beat the shared history disrupted by the family circumstances.

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Even a future addition (I’m stretching it! his girlfriend is very young and the incredible actor Hazel Doupe who has become a go to in so many short films and other TV drama roles) to the family is suggested to acquaint Michael with a love interest. Dafhyd Flynn is restrained and controlled in his playing of this difficult part. His approach is to be lean and often reflective and relies on the skills he has in small gestures and unhurried but electric delivery. Along with the film this might be compared to Starred Up with its central character played by Jack O’Connell (Unbroken, ‘71) they are twinned in having created their parts with equal skill and give superb performances in this zone of seldom engaged role.

There are questions for the young woman/girl, Michaels girlfriend Orla Kerr (Hazel Doupe) to think on. There are messages to be found in the words softly spoken but ultimately delivered – noises off – by the sparsely attended pine lined Courtroom female judge whose own tones are very youthful. There is the excursion to the Prison and the process where the pace is slowed down and incremental taking in detail such as pier pressure from other prisoners whose language is their own anxiety spat out at the wrong person in absence of mind. The detail of the blue lit holding room where it is impossible to see a vein if the prisoner has smuggled in a drug to self administer is seen.  There is the non-threatening pleasant demeanor of the Prison officers, themselves doing only their duty and never being abusive or overstepping the mark or authority this ‘justice’ hierarchy has put in place which is considered truthful and honest currently.  There is a harmony which Frank Berry makes sure you become aware of through the pace this core part of Michael actually crossing another threshold into an adult world fee are prepared for or find as they perceive it.  Then the journey of the Prison incarceration is dealt out with unpredicted sharp short shocks as they follow on, opposite in character from the closing naive words of the Courtroom Magistrate echoing all around Michael. The journey is dealt with in revelation for those not familiar and even as fresh insight to the ‘system’ users (both sections) themselves.
While this is a fiction of the state of life surrounding societies justice system in Ireland and the pressures and relentless challenges brought about as manipulated by victims and perpetrators the acting out of a story in this way can only have positive outcomes. It informs on many levels and it may persuade more than conventional and framed sectoral prognosis some in the bleak place this conveys.

 

The political bit (avoid if editorial)
The tolerance and mutual strengths are explicitly laid out and engaged with it becoming apparent Michael has ambition which is driven by a renewed vigour in his life in education. Being in the environment – which in one instance is read by a fellow prisoner as a trap they are all caught up in as if they are being institutionally victimised. The life strategies are limited and very bleak given the mess the corrupt system and spoiled institutions harbour for the neglected communities which make up the suburbs and inner city ‘ghettos’ . The hope delivered over the years is powder and dust since the period of modernity following the sixties and the JFK spoiler of the state of the Republic of Ireland. Backwater tax machinations are the industrial hegemony inherited. Where Ireland began and faltered on the backbone of division of the Island in the 1920’s socialist, Republican idealists held empty political promises and became corrupted by its own violence. A delivery of labour to manifestly be subjugated in a mimicry of the British working classes while the rich rewarded themselves even becoming Premiers and messengers for fantasy politics. From De Valera, Lemass, sycophancy and Church adherence, to Abernathy meeting the Golden circles pig swilling and in exile money laundering, Reynolds and Haughey showing their vestages of impurity in ego driven leadership. Mothers of Ireland hanging their heads in shame of the child. Absent and forlorn or in flux.

There is a perception in lots of political conversation that there is a one part enemy to be taken down.  While a political philosophy may have its positives there is the overriding human negating the order sought and it is – once ‘licenced from above or below – the latter being a vile act repeated such as the introduction by the IRA of the car bomb – in this film the brother of the friend is caught up in this mechanism of political abuse.  He imitates those above and below.

It remains those egregious methods once blamed on the top echelon of society (it is quite legitimate so to do) only progress by the use down the rungs as those below use them to clamber up. Seeing there is a contract it is broken denying the Wesleyan concepts being not misunderstood but discarded. That is a notion coming straight out of the novel descriptive of 16th century society I happened to be reading! The Mermaid and Mr Hancock.

Prison reform

Here I have to mention the reform happening within the Republic of Ireland Justice and Prison system. Incrementally change is happening. Lord Longford once was heralded as a legendary lone wolf prison reformer. (His daughter Antonia Fraser once said he couldn’t boil a kettle and Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously stated that Longford had the mental capacity of a 12-year-old.) Privileged as he was and totally wrong on many issues he nevertheless found a clarity if not notoriety in Prisoner Rights and formed some shock filled relationships. There came from it good works. ‘He also initiated practical measures to ease offenders’ reintegration into society. He founded the New Bridge in 1955, the first organisation dedicated to ex-prisoners’ welfare. In 1970, he established, in New Horizon, the first drop-in centre for homeless teenagers. Until the end, he spent time at New Horizon’s offices, oblivious to its users’ sometimes rough teasing, anxious to understand what had alienated them from the mainstream.

He also contributed a series of learned reports on penal reform during Labour’s period out of office between Attlee and Wilson. He chaired the committee which, in 1963, recommended the setting-up of the parole system, still the bedrock of the current system.’ Guardian 2001.

Now such reforms are a staple of the work of Prison and Justice practice. In ROI the justice system is improving but many issues remain. With the idea of ‘privatization’ abandoned in the early part of the decade, and a new approach to practical measures this is borne out in the approach this film takes. Nevertheless the listening to Prisoners phone calls, the use of a separate Healthcare system, (4 babies born last year in Mountjoy) and the class of rehabilitation stymied by cost and process there is much wrong with the resolution of the causes and effects presenting.

 

Real Cinema
This film is as close as cinema can get to a subject without destroying the object of exploration and learning by the process. I am reminded of the modern Irish Shakespeare, Dave Duggan and something he said at the time of his second encounter with a major health problem – thankfully he is out of the vicinity of that, in 2014, – while writing Makaronik, an archival piece! He traverses the same topography know in the Irish psyche that cinema is using in specific people driven storytelling. (Read more at: https://www.derryjournal.com/news/the-indestructible-dave-duggan-1-6402054) of which he states on Theatre “My plays may seem to be varied, but they are essentially all about the same thing. They are all about humans in a small group, be it in a family or a work place – and they are dealing with an issue against a bigger backdrop. There is a unity to their experience – what I write may seem to differ greatly from work to work, but my plays are all about the human experience, the human condition. “They are about the choices people make and how those choices affect them and those around them.”
Along with this approach he covered ‘the troubles’ by the method adopted in AH 6905 (2005), produced in Afghanistan in 2008. (1969 to 2005) Well worth seeing.

You can see the family setting he refers to applied here with the disintegration almost palpable and coming at you out of the screen. Lalor Roddy is superb in this and brings the soft gentle Beckett strange delivery he has within him, that it needs to soften the blow. He does this for Michael and with decent well honed words this astute wisdom is tangible and the actors gift which is delivering the core of the elements gathered and intersecting. The weave is complex and difficult and could easily have gone wrong numerous times. It is totally astonishing how well this film is able to hold onto its simplest message while calling subconsciously for your thoughts to continue beyond the walls in taking this third wall onward to read beyond this time.

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Conclusion ####4
From the opening of this film it creates a picture seldom visited in Cinema other than in search of heroics or misfeasance often over saturated with alarming violence and few shades of truth. Amid the diet of crime situational drama and the oversimplification of crime dramas this is a portrait of a family facing its destruction unless the struggle is confronted with stoic and stark realism. Michael Inside demands a very questioning approach from the viewer in order to receive the accumulation of wisdom the method of workshops, listening, scripting and story telling have unearthed. Frank Berry probably seeks your attention to the interior mindset as it is equipped at this age, 18, of Michael in this set of circumstances, in a modern Dublin in an educational system as divided by class and wealth as most western ‘democracies’ in Europe. (Scandinavian education aside!) to which further circumstantial predicament presents. The film observes through a brilliant visual and meticulously developed script a story conveying a small element of struggle which is huge in its message and insightful approach.  There is no over reliance on the violence which is both present and frequent.  There is a crossing from Home to Court to Home. From Home to Court to Jail.  Journeys are relayed by Francis and Michael and paths traced out.  Together and alone. Almost visions of reflection themselves.  Interludes and false ends are visited and complexities reasoned with. When it reached its conclusion it made a very distinct manourvere which made me recall the film Ordet by Carl Theodor Dreyer. The ending is similar in that it leaves you hanging and wondering what happens next in a way seldom seen in cinema. I wondered how connected the two films might be with this device being used, where there is absolutely a pure expression of something beyond that you will have to find and fill in for yourself.  Extraordinary and valued achievement.

John Graham

14 May 2018

Belfast

On at Queens Film Theatre form 11 May until 24 May 2018

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