First of all I have to admit this review will exhibit double standards, but consistency is overrated and almost impossible to maintain. Previous Glasgow gangster/prison films have included the Jimmy Boyle biopic A Sense of Freedom, and Silent Scream, based on the life of Boyle’s fellow Barlinnie Special Unit resident Larry Winters, and I think they’re both fine films.
But I remember parents of friends of mine who grew up and worked in the south side of Glasgow when Boyle in particular was at work who hated the idea of there being a film made about the man, as though its very existence forgave him his sins. Well The Wee Man, the biopic of Glasgow gangster Paul Ferris, is my generation’s A Sense of Freedom and I can now understand that unease.
I love a good gangster flick, Godfather and Godfather II, Goodfellas, Carlito’s Way and Get Carter are amongst my favourite films. The Wee Man nods towards a couple of these at least, particularly Goodfellas. Like the young Henry Hill in that film, The Wee Man sees the young Paul Ferris becoming slowly exposed to the gangster life, and finding the violence exciting and empowering.The suits are more Jack the Lad than Armani, but the violence is as sickening. This is where the hypocrisy rears its head. Like many Glaswegians I remember the front pages of newspapers when there were regular murders in the city as a result of gangland feuds, many of which are depicted in the film. Some of those involved you would see on the street, or in my case in the first restaurant I worked in, and being faced with such brutality on screen when you once served that person a cappuccino is an unsettling feeling. Everyone knew the stories, and the books, such as the one The Wee Man is based on, were always best sellers in the city’s bookstores. The success of gangster films is based at least in part on the fascination with violence, and men who will do things that the average film fan would never do. Perhaps The Wee Man is just too close for comfort.
This was a film I didn’t have great expectations for, but it is not the disaster I feared. The film is written and directed by Ray Burdis, and on this evidence he is better at the latter. The script is too keen to deal in cliched dialogue. Again, I’m aware that this may be because I’m more used to this language than the patter of your average Scorsese movie, but it felt that it’s what people playing at gangsters would talk like. Of course that may be the point.
The acting is hit and miss, but when it is good it is very good. Martin Compston is chilling and charismatic at the same time as the teen and adult Ferris, someone who’s innocence is lost quickly and who takes to the life of crime with ease. He is portrayed as being separate from the others by having some code of gangster honour, talking about ‘civilians’ like a psychopathic Liz Hurley, but Compston is good enough to just about make you believe it. He has become an always reliable and welcome screen presence, and should be a bigger star. We discussed on the recent Burnscast, who could play Robert Burns if they ever get round to making the film of his life, and Compston may have the edge and charm to pull it off.
Stephen McCole is terrific as Arthur ‘Fatboy’ Thompson Jr, whose cowardice, taste for cocaine and father issues prove his downfall. He is obsessed with The Godfather, but his role model is more Tony Montano in Scarface. Patrick Bergen is unrecognisable and convincing as Arthur Thompson Snr, the Glasgow ‘Godfather’ who was as big a celebrity in Glasgow for a time in the late ’80s and early ’90s as any Old Firm player. John Hannah, in his best role in years, bears an uncanny resemblance to Tam ‘The Licensee’ McGraw, and Denis Lawson and Clare Grogan as Paul Ferris’s mum and dad bring a welcome, if weary, warmth to the film. Who wouldn’t want them as parents? (Amateur psychoanalysts; answers on a postcard please).
Here’s the trailer:
Some times films which aren’t wholly successful can still be interesting, and that’s the case with The Wee Man. It’s nowhere near as good as the Billy Connolly fronted The Debt Collector (based on Jimmy Boyle’s later life) but maybe that goes to show that sticking faithfully to true stories is overrated, and the best telling of tales will come from at least the pretence of fiction. I wonder if a film ‘based on a true story’ with names and places changed would have been more palatable as there would be a distance between the film and the horror of true events. Or maybe that is yet more hypocrisy? I found The Wee Man an uncomfortable film to watch, but on reflection that’s a good thing. I understand why Glasgow Council didn’t want it filmed in the city (most of it is obviously London, which doesn’t help matters), but they should have let it be nonetheless. In the end the film doesn’t glamorise violence, these are horrible events but they can’t, or shouldn’t, be ignored.
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