The Guvnors (2014)

Review first published by Sight & Sound, October 2014

Synopsis: Having turned his back on his legendary gang The Guvnors twenty years ago to settle down with Angie and get a job in the City, the now middle-aged Mitch dissuades his own teenaged son Alfie from becoming a school bully. Meanwhile, when he is not looking after his younger brother Tyler, scarred, parentless teen Adam is rising to make his mark on Mitch’s old estate in the South East, terrorising its criminal and civilian populace alike. When policeman (and ex-Guvnor) Meyler tells Adam that his brand of hooliganism would not have been countenanced back in the Guvnors’ day, Adam goes looking for trouble in the Guvnors’ old pub, only to be decked by the old gang’s mentor/boxing trainer Mickey. When a Youtube clip video of his defeat goes viral, a humiliated Adam breaks into the pub with his gang and kicks Mickey to death.

Wanting an end to the violence as much as revenge, Mitch regroups the Guvnors, now all middle-aged and still resentful that their one-time leader abandoned them decades earlier. Confronting Adam alone in his flat, Mitch realises that the boy is his own illegitimate son, and tells Adam to get out as he himself once did. Adam ignores Mitch, and the next day in a pitched street battle between his own gang and the Guvnors, shoots Mitch dead. In prison, Adam reads a fatherly letter written to him by Mitch before just before they clashed. Outside, Alfie confronts Tyler.

Review: Middle-aged Mitch (Doug Allen) may have a respectable City job, his own home, a loving wife (Melanie Gutteridge), a worshipful teenaged son (Cameron Lee Farrelly), and all the mod cons of a successful life, but he still wears scars on his back and tattoos on his shoulder like badges of honour – or disgrace – for a past that will never fully go away. Those same tattoos are clearly visible on the photo of Mitch’s younger self that adorns the front cover of a book about football terrace violence, which his son is covertly reading as inspiration for his new career as school bully. Meanwhile, on Mitch’s old South East London estate, young parentless Adam (musician Harley Sylvester, excellent) is making the transition from bully to gangster, terrorising any perceived grass or rival drug dealer with a box cutter, the weapon of choice with which he makes others share the same deep scars that are already etched into his own face. His is the world that, 20 years earlier, Mitch managed to escape – but now, after Mitch’s old mentor Mickey (David Essex) becomes a victim of Adam’s rise, Mitch returns to reconvene his old firm the Guvnors for revenge and possible redemption.

“I don’t want you to become me,” Mitch tells his son, “You’re better than that.” Yet all those tattoos and scars represent a legacy of violence, innit, handed down from one abandoned age to the next, as this tale of the old school and the Youtube generation, sees both a clash – and a perpetuation – of toxic values. Previously known for the football-related documentaries In the Hands of the Gods (2007) and The Class of 92 (2013), writer/director Gabe Turner carefully sidesteps the pitfalls of glorifying brutality or lionising its aggressive avatars by focusing less on action than on its consequences – consequences which he is careful to show can take many years to unravel for those who get to live that long.

Adjectives like ‘gritty’ have become part of the territory of the British gangland film, but far from being all ‘realist’ greys and grime, The Guvnors offers a colourful, stylised picture that contrasts Mitch’s well-appointed house, his City office, Adam’s blue-tinted council flat, the claustrophobic estate (half maze, half amphitheatre) and the pub where Mitch’s gang used to hang out (aptly described by Adam as “a timewarp… like a badly decorated job centre”). Quotations from Mark Twain on corrosive anger and the fear of death universalise an otherwise local saga, while the revelation of just what connects Mitch to Adam besides a shared propensity for power play, and the baroque, overemotive wash of Pascal Bideau’s pervasive bass synth notes, all elevate these barroom brawls and street scraps to the sort of internecine, intergenerational struggle associated with a grand dynastic tragedy. Perhaps The Guvnors is punching above its weight, but you have to admire the ambition of this myth of fathers and sons, unable to break free of one vicious cycle without creating another down the line.

Anton Bitel