For much of The Man Inside‘s running time, there’s a feeling of bleakness, unfairness and borderline despair that makes it a tough film. That the actions of one person have, basically, had haunting ramifications, top to bottom. It’s a tough one to watch, and it’s a tough one to sell, especially given that it’s not, by any stretch, going to be to all tastes.
But it’s a really good film. It’s a well made piece of work, built on a small budget, that fleshes out interesting characters, and puts them in unpleasant, but authentic-feeling circumstances. The film is written and directed by Dan Turner, and he wastes little time setting up its unrelenting style. Mixing in broad cityscapes and often discomforting close-ups, a culture of violence, in a modern British community, is quickly established.
At the centre of The Man Inside is Clayton, played by Ashley ‘Bashy’ Thomas, a man who’s trying to set his own life far apart from his father’s. For Clayton’s dad (David Harewood) is a cold-blooded gangster locked up in prison, whose influence can be clearly felt throughout. Not just on Clayton, but on his mother and brother, each of whom regard him in different ways. To reinforce just how much an influence Harewood’s mainly-unseen character is, Turner brings in one particularly cold and disturbing flashback, which instantly gets across the complexity of the background Clayton is fighting against.
Boxing, then, provides a path for Clayton, moreso through the relationship he has with his trainer, Gordon, played wonderfully by Peter Mullan. It’s to the credit of Mullan that we’ve come to expect such strong character acting from him, but it’d be remiss to take it for granted. In a fairly small role, he has an awful lot of impact here, getting across more in a single stare and chosen pauses than many could achieve with several lines of dialogue.
His daughter is played by Michelle Ryan, and this is arguably her best work to date. At first, her character, Alexia, feels like a standard rebel, both visually and in attitude. But as The Man Inside gradually peels back the layers on its characters, Ryan excels. She’s given challenging material to work with, and hers is one of two performances that’s likely to stay with you some time after the credits have rolled.
The other is that of Ashley Thomas. He’s the anchor for The Man Inside, providing an aura of calmness, yet he’s riddled with inner turmoil. He’s not always a particularly likeable character, for truthful rather than contrived reasons, and Thomas’s rich performance deserves much acclaim. It could and should be a breakthrough role for him.
Dan Turner’s screenplay is unflinching at times, and it does little to gloss up the mixture of events that his characters go through. One by-product of this is that it’s often an unwelcoming story he’s telling, and not always an easy one to get into. To his credit though, no matter which dark places his main characters go to, you can’t help but have some sympathy for them.
The only character who’s not depicted in shades of grey is Harewood, whose unremitting nastiness, although off-screen, shadows the film. Why he’s turned out how he has is something The Man Inside never digs into, although to be fair, it’d be a much longer film were it to shift away from its main ensemble. But he feels like the most two-dimensional presence in a film where the other characters are much, much more rounded.
It’s a difficult film, The Man Inside, and one that has the grit, realism and sombre tone that, for a while, British cinema had as its trademark. Yet cliched it isn’t. Instead, this is a quality drama that’s down to earth, uncomfortable, well-made and worthwhile.
And keep an eye on Ashley Thomas and Michelle Ryan. There’s evidence here that there’s a lot more to come from both of them…
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