Alan Clarke’s once-banned “Scum” (1979), an unflinching look at violence, racism and suicide in a British reform school has lost none of its punch-to-the-gut power. The film was originally made for the BBC in 1977, which refused to show the intense depiction of the borstal system. Clarke, determined to expose the abuses, re-shot “Scum” as a longer, more scathing theatrical feature.
A young Ray Winstone, in a ferocious performance, stars as Carlin (#4737), a “hard case” who alternates between tightly coiled silence and explosive ultra-violence. Newly arrived at the stark, colorless institution, he’s marked by the authorities for a humbling beat down from another inmate, Pongo (John Blundell), a “big lad.” Not a snitch, Carlin explains his livid bruises to Sands (John Judd), who runs A wing, as the result of a fall on the concrete stairs–and bides his time. In a shockingly brutal attack in the bathroom (“Next time, I’ll fuckin’ kill ya”), Carlin gets his revenge and takes over the role of the “Daddy” of A wing.
As the guards increase their aggression toward the “trainees,” the institution’s Governor metes out punishment for perceived infractions, and tension between groups of the boys builds, the situation becomes dangerously unstable.
Clarke, who died in 1990, worked primarily in TV and only made a few feature films. His work, which often depicts the British working class, ranks among the most original in his country’s cinematic history.
“Scum,” shown in a 2K restoration (done by Pinewood Studios in 2012 from the original 35mm camera negative held at the BFI) opens today at Metrograph for a one-week run.