There’s a certain type of American who knows what a “borstal” is, like as not because they’ve been listening to British music and watching British television and film their entire lives. It’s so appealing, that British root to our common language and culture, so familiar and yet so exotic and piquant. Scum and Life Is Sweet, a pair of older British films out now in new video editions, offer two contrasting and indelible visions of that most endlessly gawkable aspect of British life—its working class.
A borstal, in case you’re not familiar, is the British equivalent of an American reform school, punitive housing for young men making an uneasy fit in society. The system doesn’t exist anymore, and Alan Clarke’s 1978 Scum (Kino Lorber DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming) has to be considered a small part of the reason why.
The first shot in the film pans down from the surprisingly cherubic face of a just-past teenage Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast, The Departed) to the handcuffs around his wrist. After his induction into the system, including a beat-down from one of its myriad middle-aged brown-suit-wearing warders, his Carling acclimatizes to the hard work, routine, bad food, and law-of-the-jungle interactions with the fellow-warder “Daddy” of his wing. That is, until, fed up, Carling calmly fills a sock with snooker balls and beats down the Daddy and his crew. Who’s your Daddy now?
It’s the scene from Scum that everyone who’s seen it remembers, though there’s plenty of worthy competition: the warders setting up a vicious dodgeball-like gym game with whites on one side and blacks on the other; a brutal gang rape and its horrific fallout, the latter shot with terrible subtlety and then none at all; an entirely authentic-seeming riot; the final coup de grace of institutional callousness. These individual scenes still galvanize, though the film surrounding them doesn’t so much bring you along as drag you toward each, lecturing all the while. Clarke initially shot his story for British television, which declined to air it. Freed from the need to stick to even the relatively permissive standards of British TV, he reshot for a feature film that doubled down on an unflinching unpleasantness. It caused an uproar on its release, and has spent much of the past 30 years out of circulation or only available in adulterated versions. Its polemics aside, Scum remains an effective portrait of institutional brutality, and as prodigious as Winstone is in his part, he almost gets scenes stolen from him by Mick Ford as a barefoot inmate out to resist the system as much as he can.
Hardly a single unpleasant thing happens in Mike Leigh’s 1990 Life Is Sweet (the Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray) without a hearty cackle or a “Bless ’im” as end punctuation. As quietly joyful as Scum is tawdry, Leigh’s first minor American breakout focuses on the flip side of workaday British life.
Good-natured Andy (Jim Broadbent) runs an institutional kitchen—we never see him touch ingredients except to pop them in his mouth. His equally good-natured wife Wendy (Alison Steadman) owns her own baby-clothes emporium. Their sober, tomboy-ish older daughter, Natalie (Claire Skinner), works as a plumber. Their younger daughter, Nicola (Jane Horrocks), seems to work at making her parents, and herself, miserable. The plot threads, such as they are, are simple and spasmodic. Andy buys a cruddy trailer kitchen off a shady mate (Stephen Rea), giving in to hopes of chucking the day gig and being his own boss. Family friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall) prepares to open a hapless Edith Piaf-themed French restaurant—the menu goes heavy on organ meats, including “pork cyst.” And Nicola wrestles with, among other issues, an eating disorder.
The overarching food theme may make Life Is Sweet sound far more craftily organized than it is. Leigh’s famous working method—letting a project assemble itself from months of in-character improvisations rather than a polished shooting script—shows its seams here. Not that you’ll mind. You feel lucky to get to spend time with these funny, kind people and their quirks. Of course, Spall’s character is such a compendium of outlandish quirks that it almost derails his early scenes; likewise for Horrocks’ bundle of nerves and tics and screechy unpleasantness. But Leigh makes you spend enough time with them that their core humanity can’t help but leak out (he remains an underrated master of going to close-up at just the right moment). Watching Broadbent and Steadman talk and snuggle blissfully in their bed not only makes the likely failure of their little dreams beside the point—it almost makes you want to climb in with them. Sweet, indeed.