From Doctor Who to Director — The Evolution of Noel Clarke

From Doctor Who’s Mickey to a one-man film industry... So why doesn’t Noel Clarke get more respect?

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Over the past weekend, the final part of Noel Clarke’s The Hood trilogy of movies, Brotherhood, hit big in the UK. The movie has earned £1.98 million (that’s more than $2.5 million) in its first seven days on release, on just 220 screens. It did so in spite of Clarke at one stage struggling to raise the finance for the film (only two companies ended up putting in tangible offers), and also in spite of it being eight years since the release of its predecessor, Adulthood.

In a summer of box office disappointments, Brotherhood has offered a very welcome contrast.

The box office numbers were being reported as a surprise, and not unreasonably. Rounding off a trilogy that’s been off screen for many years is a gamble. It is a trilogy too based in a category (however fair or unfair it is that the films were pigeon-holed) that, to many onlookers, had already peaked hardly had investors rushing for their checkbooks.

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However, there were clues that there was a big success in the making here — not least in Adulthood, the second film in the series. On its release back in 2008, that was a bona fide surprise hit, finishing above Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk on its opening weekend at the UK box office and eventually returning a highly profitable box office tally of £3.35 million ($4.4 million).

That was Clarke’s directorial debut, too. Having previously written and starred in Kidulthood, (helmed by Menhaj Huda), Clarke took over as a reluctant first-time helmer when the director’s chair was open on Adulthood. He’s been candid about the fact that he took the job not quite appreciating what he was getting into, and pretty much held on by the skin of his very well cared for teeth.

There’s a rawness and energy in Adulthood that gives that away, but also, I’d argue, it’s a reason too why it works. I think it was John Grisham who said of his first novel, A Time To Kill, that he could, with the benefit and experience of hindsight, pick it to bits. Yet also, he wouldn’t touch a word, because it’s a first novel, and its rawness and rough edges were part of that. Rewatching Adulthood, I felt the same about that. The impatient style Clarke brought to the movie suited the material. The prison flashback scenes had real energy too and, whilst you could argue that the filmmaking was a little too busy, the movie connected and worked. It still does.

For his second film as director, he wrote and co-helmed (with Mark Davis), a confident and generally successful film that I have a lot of time for. Again, he pushed himself. Four intertwining stories, a tip of the hat to the wonderful Amores Perros, and an ability to harness the energy of a young cast were some of the highlights (and in terms of giving new talent a break, Noel Clarke’s productions continually seem to do that). It dragged a little by the end, certainly, but I liked that — through choice or circumstance — Clarke was pushing himself heavily out of his comfort zone. Next to Brotherhood, is my favorite Noel Clarke film.

He pushed himself again (less successfully) with The Anomaly, a muddled mix of sci-fi and action that started off confidently, but lost discipline as it went on. Clarke has admitted that the script for that one wasn’t where he needed it to be, and I’d agree with that. But I also think it could have used some of the more concentrated filmmaking decisions that were clearly made with Brotherhood. That said, I ain’t a film director, and it’s easy to make comments like that from the sidelines. I am a customer, though, and The Anomaly is one where I didn’t feel like I got my money’s worth.

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But it’s some journey that Clarke has been on, and I think there are lessons in there. The winner of a BAFTA and an Olivier Award at an early age, I admire immensely that he doesn’t get sidetracked by a fear of failure. I’m sure it’s there somewhere; it just doesn’t slow him down.

Take 2012, when he was a one-man British film industry, thanks to the fun Fast Girls, the quietly impressive Storage 24 and the one I really didn’t go for, The Knot. In each case, though, he penned the initial stories and produced the films, taking on roles in each. Some were better than others, but he got each to the screen through his Unstoppable Entertainment company (a firm that, to this day, is willing to read unsolicited screenplays from untested writers).

So why isn’t he more respected in UK cinema? Sure, some of the films had problems, but he’s not alone in that respect. Yet it’s an oddity that such a prolific character in the British film industry is still seen as a surprise when he has a solid hit (and not his first). As much as I’ve always been interested in the work of Noel Clarke, you only have to take one look at the comments field below articles about him to see that he’s a divisive figure.

In an era where filmmakers and performers are media-trained, Clarke says what he thinks, with not even the faintest whiff of varnish. He rubs people the wrong way with some of his public comments, and it’s not a massive stretch to suggest that he does the same behind the scenes as well. Furthermore, he — as he’s admitted — makes his mistakes in plain sight. Sometimes, he comes across as abrupt. He’s not scared of blocking people on social media. And yep: some people simply don’t like his movies.

But, when many around him are struggling to get projects off the ground, he gets lots (but not all) of his made. He finds people employment. He does, quietly, lots of work to try and hold the ladder up for people looking for a break (visiting schools, and trying to help people breaking into film). And, interestingly, he continues to evolve as a filmmaker too. It’s one thing admitting to making mistakes, it’s another to learn from them and build.

Brotherhood then, for me, is Clarke’s most assured and confidently-directed film. It’s a movie where he’s far more content to ground his camera, to hold his frame, to trust his actors. To zero in on eyes, to use handheld shots sparsely and to effect. Clarke has described it as his graduation film, saying that he feels more a filmmaker now, than someone who makes films. But, for me, there’s also an undercurrent of confidence and self-trust here. It fits the story he wants to tell, of the character of Sam trying to resist falling back into the life he’s worked so hard to escape.

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Clarke has directed four films to date, and Brotherhood follows for me the one that’s his weakest. I struggled with The Anomaly, respecting its ambition and that Clarke was stretching himself as a film director, but I can’t help but feel he’d make a much better go of it now. Brotherhood, though, I liked. I think there are problems there, including an early plot point that I’m not going to spoil, but feels too contrived for my money. But, by the end, he’d won me over.

One other thing struck me too: he’s got an ability to direct comedy, and to shape it in the edit. Brotherhood knows that violence and comedy are not easy bedfellows, and I think one of the real achievements with the movie is the way Clarke plays with that. There’s sharp editing here, and it helps generate big laughs.

Brotherhood is a good film, far from a perfect one, and it’s been critically bashed in some quarters. But it’s also found its advocates, and it’s found people that it means something to, and an audience that’s on its side. There’s unease — which Clarke would and has argued is deliberate — in its treatment of some characters, and the amount of flesh on show. But there’s also, in the character of Sam, some of his very best work in writing, in performance, and in directing.

Off the back of Brotherhood’s box office success, Clarke should have slightly increased clout to get another project or two off the ground, and I’m interested to see where he goes from here. Brotherhood suggests that he’s more in tune with an audience that many give him credit for, and also, that he’s capable of delivering a film to live up to that. He’s also a British filmmaker, fighting tooth and nail to get more British films made, in Britain.

Mickey Smith, for one, would be delighted.