America has its projects, Brazil has its slums, and England has its council estates. ‘Gritty realism’ is a term often used to describe films set in impoverished communities rife with violence, broken homes and gang-related low life expectancy. It’s a bleak existence that frequently ends in tragedy and perpetuates the same misery on to the next doomed generation. The Guvnors, from writer and director Gabe Turner (In the Hands of The Gods, The Class of ’92) and co-produced by author Cass Pennant (Cass), is an interesting Greek-style tragedy, if a slightly rose-tinted attempt to bring some extra grit to a south-east London estate’s multigenerational gang culture. It aims to be a 21st-century morality tale of the sins of the father being revisited on the son.
It’s a noble effort that owes a debt to Alan Clarke’s The Firm (1989) and Nick Love’s The Football Factory (2004), with their similar themes of raging male masculinity brought to the boil on London’s football terraces and in its city streets. The Guvnors is a bit subdued in comparison, lacking the bite of its predecessors, as the violence has a Shakespearean rhythm; a character delivers a monologue, there’s a flash of sharpened steel, then the slow trickle of stage blood.
The story is essentially a two-hander between Adam (Harley Sylvester), a teenage gang leader from a broken home, struggling to make his name on the estate, and Mitch (Doug Allen), a reformed football hooligan and ex-leader of The Guvnors, an infamous brotherhood that casts a decade’s long shadow over Adam and his hooded band of asbo-lites. A botched confrontation between Adam and Micky (David Essex), an octogenarian boxing instructor and Mitch’s estranged mentor, finds its way onto YouTube, and the teenager is left nursing more than just a black eye. What follows is a twisting journey of revenge and retribution that plays out against the dichotomy of hoodies v hooligans.
The film draws a direct parallel between Adam’s youthful brigade of street trash, who maintain their power through fear and intimidation, and Mitch’s old guard of cockney geezers who value brotherhood and community. Turner’s sepia flashbacks spell out his reverence for Mitch’s laddish heyday spent on the council estate swilling beer and beating rivals to a bloody pulp. The director’s nostalgia for the good old days feels slightly misjudged, as it’s crystal clear that violence instigated through old-school male bonding, or the millennial threat of having an ear cut off, are both still crimes under the eyes of the law. This uneasy balance of tone further muddies the film’s endeavours to build a convincing level of tension between the two warring parties. This is especially apparent when Mitch, in an ill-conceived comedic montage, gets The Guvnors back together for one last dust-up.
For all of the film’s small missteps and a climactic twist which is more head scratching than shocking, it is the final frame that brings home the message that violence begets more violence. After the credits have rolled, a poignant question remains how many homes have been destroyed because of male pride and the inability to walk away. In some ways, The Guvnors also highlights the closing gap between the council estates and the squeezed middle’s residential streets. In an era of wage freezes, high inflation and lack of career progression, multiple generations are struggling to define their identities within a society feeling the pinch of austerity, making everybody’s lives that little bit grittier.