Dir. Richard Jobson. UK. 2003. 102mins.
Richard Jobson's first feature is an intensely felt, but often disjointed, tale of a man's desperate attempt to free himself not only from alcoholic addiction, but also to overcome his violent nature, basic mistrust in human nature and ferociously anti-social conduct. Growing up with a father (who is himself an excessive drinker, womaniser and brute who both fascinated and repelled his son), he turns into a vicious gang leader, who beats up friends and foes alike, using role models like his father, Bruce Lee and Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Based on Jobson's own novel, 16 Years Of Alcohol is the kind of uneven picture where moments of authentic passion alternate with soulful declamatory passages that speculate on topics like the essence of hope and charity with more than a touch of self-pity. But solid performances by Kevin McKidd, Laura Fraser and Susan Lynch, a reliable supporting cast and some remarkably well-shot Edinburgh locations, may even the score and ensure the film enjoys not only a safe festival career but also good prospects on circuits which welcomed the likes of Trainspotting and Small Faces. Aside from competing at Locarno, the film also plays at the Edinburgh International Film festival this week and next.
16 Years is very much a writer's film, relying on the spoken word more than the impact of images, although they are carefully planned and executed. The story is told as a long flashback, starting when the main character, Frankie (Kidd), leaves his drink untouched on a pub bar, walks out into the back alleys of Edinburgh and is trapped and beaten to death by his former pals. They form the same gang he lorded over and then abandoned once he decided to change the course of his life.
It later transpires that this scene marks both his victory and his defeat. When it is repeated again at the end of the film, with certain extra details added, it becomes clear that Frankie had consciously walked into the trap, feeling that he had exhausted all other options to redeem himself.
Between these two bookends the story takes the audience from glimpses of Frankie's childhood and memories of his father, a symbol of square-jawed male supremacy, through the first drink that was put by this same father into his hand, to his days as an arrogant sadistic gang leader (Alex and his "droogs" are clearly the reference). Here he unleashes his fury not only on innocent bystanders who dare not put up any resistance or interfere, but on his own gang as well.
A lovely young record seller (Fraser), whose soft, gentle presence somehow tames his wild impulses - caused, says the constant narration, by his hunger for love and affection - is scared off by his inability to control himself, when snubbed by a pair of pompous uptight snobs in an art gallery. Later on, he latches on to yet another girl (Lynch), for whose sake he even joins a drama club. Happiness seems attainable for a brief moment, but a rather melodramatic deus-ex-machina misunderstanding throws him back into the arms of despair - and to the conclusion that while he may have turned his back on what he once was, ultimately he cannot really change into anything else.
Jobson, whose colourful career includes rock groups in his teens, fashion modelling in his 20s, TV film journalism, writing books and poetry, as well as film production, dedicated the picture to the memory of his late brother, who died in 2000 at 45. Loosely based on both his own and his brother's experiences, and lavishly sprinkled with an inspired variety of music, from sentimental country and western to punk, the picture does transmit, at its best, the immediate pain and confusion of a smart young man who is at war with himself more than he is with the rest of the world. Brutality is the only way he knows of asserting his own identity and preserving what he considers to be his dignity.
Jobson, who concedes the Kubrick tribute and says the narration has been suggested to him by his other source of inspiration, Wong Kar-Wai, makes conscious efforts to create interesting visuals, painstakingly divided frames, colour-treated sequences with a predilection for the red and some pretty wildly fragmented sequences. But it all drowns in massive off-screen voice-overs, which instead of helping, eventually become counter-productive. Compared to Trainspotting, 16 Year's Of Alcohol is a pretty tame item, but judged on its own merits as a first film, it is an auspicious debut.
Prod co: Tartan Works
Int'l sales: Fortissimo Films
UK dist: Metro Tartan
Prod: Hamish McAlpine, Mark Burton
Scr: Richard Jobson
Cinematography: John Rhodes
Ed: Iannis Chialkiadakis
Prod des: Adam Squires
Music: Keith Atack, Malcolm Lindsay
Main cast: Kevin McKidd, Laura Fraser, Susan Lynch, Ewen Bremner, Stuart Sinclair Blyth, Michael Moreland, Russell Anderson, Jim Carter