We take a look at this infamous prison drama as it celebrates its re-release on DVD…
1967: Glasgow’s most violent man, gangster Jimmy Boyle, is convicted of murder and sent to Barlinnie Prison. 1977: Boyle’s prison autobiography, A Sense of Freedom, is released. 1979: John Mackenzie films the book for STV, with David Hayman starring as Boyle. 1985: Handmade Films tinkers slightly with the TV movie and releases it in Britain and the States. 2015: The film is rereleased on DVD and Blu-Ray.
On the timing of the rerelease, I’m not sure. It marks no significant anniversary for the film or for the real-life events behind it. Of the key players, John Mackenzie passed away four years ago and Jimmy Boyle is living quietly in Morocco. David Hayman plays a supporting rôle in the forthcoming Macbeth with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard; but that’s more like business as usual given his strong support in other big productions (Rob Roy, Vertical Limit, The Tailor of Panama). However, Mackenzie’s followup film, The Long Good Friday, is currently enjoying a prestigious Arrow rerelease package, so perhaps that’s the motive here. Or perhaps, with Tom Hardy currently in the cinema as a set of even more notorious British gangsters, the aim is to position this film as a forerunner. Or perhaps it was just felt that A Sense of Freedom deserved more attention. The package presented here may not, however, have been the best way of going about that goal, with no extra features at all and no improvement in visual or sound quality over the last release.
The only thing here that’s cool is the inclusion of both versions of the film. The “Scottish version” is the film exactly as it was shown on STV, while the more widely-seen “English version” adds a few nice touches such as proper opening credits, but damages the intensity of the original by dubbing over the Glasgow accents with Jean Brodie-esque Scottish Standard Pronunciation. It’s nice being able to see both, though for the purposes of compare and contrast, the two versions have more similarities between them than differences.
After a brief bit of business on the streets of Glasgow, the film deals largely with Boyle’s imprisonment and seemingly insatiable anger at the system which, in part, creates him. Boyle’s rage is constant and violent, as he attacks guards whenever the opportunity arises, flings his own shit around his cell, and physically tears at his surroundings. His destructive urges are directed everywhere except towards himself, rejecting suicide as the easy option. The ending hints at a redemption for Boyle, that gentleness begets gentleness just as violence begets violence, but the thematic focus does not leave room for Boyle’s real-life subsequent careers as a sculptor and as a novelist. It almost feels like a shame, but on the other hand it’s refreshing to see a biopic with a theme, rather than a shapeless series of events. The only problem for me was that it’s difficult to feel too much sympathy for Boyle. The film is mostly a workout for Hayman, who is exhaustingly compelling, but he so completely dominates the film that we’re never convincingly shown the brutality of the system; all we have is one case study, who anyway was violent and angry pre-incarceration. And then there is the eternal problem of condemning violence while glamourising it through depiction. The best line in the film comes when a warden wonders aloud to Boyle whether their treatment of him pushes him to violence, or whether his attitude forces them to act like the bastards he perceives them as. But that moment aside, the film certainly asks, and assumes, that its viewers’ sympathies be with its main character and against the system he opposes – which is tricky when we see him giving a Glasgow grin to a probably-innocent old man in the first ten minutes. British gangster films have always been offputtingly awed by their central figures, not helped by marketing full of key phrases like “most violent”, “notorious”, “hardman”, “outlaw”, “legend”. American gangster pics glamourise, too, but they feel so much like comic books (Scarface) or opera (The Godfather) that it doesn’t matter – and then there’s the fact of their gangster movies being so much better than ours. A Sense of Freedom, like its main character, is more philosophical – and therefore its offenses more forgivable – than its contemporaries; but, like its main character, that isn’t saying much, and its half-justifications do not transform its core of tawdry nastiness.
A Sense of Freedom was released on the 23rd November on DVD thanks to Odyssey. Will you be grabbing yourselves a copy? Let us know in the comment box below!