Film review: Life sentence – hard-hitting Irish prison drama Michael Inside
Dublin director Frank Berry's award-winning Irish prison drama Michael Inside opens in cinemas tonight. David Roy samples this hard-hitting taste of porridge
FROM the moment we first meet him palling around with his mates on a Dublin housing estate, teenaged Michael (Dafhyd Flynn) already has the air of a condemned man about him.
He's a quiet, somewhat withdrawn kid (but, at 18, an adult in the eyes of the law he'll soon fall foul of) with a permanently pained facial expression, who pretty much only speaks when spoken to.
Michael has a girlfriend, Orla (Hazel Doupe), who dotes on him and his grandad/guardian, the similarly grim-of-face Francis (Lalor Roddy), takes an active interest in his life – yet the weight of the world seems permanently and precariously perched upon the teen's slumped shoulders.
It's like he's always waiting for the other shoe to drop – and boy does it ever drop once Michael makes the mistake of 'minding' something for a friend of a friend.
He's in handcuffs quicker than you can say "get the Guards".
We soon learn Michael has had a hard paper round in terms of his family background and that he's been in less serious bother with the cops before. However, he's 18 now and, given the title of writer/director Frank Berry's unrelentingly grim tale, it's clear this latest mistake is the big one, the game-changer, the one he's going down for.
The question is, can this good-natured soul ever get back up again once he's been tarred with the prison brush?
Michael Inside sets out to show how easily even someone on the periphery of criminality in Dublin's working class estates can be sucked into a whirlpool of misery from which there is basically no escape.
It's clear from the start that Michael is not a criminal. He just has to live in a place where leaving the house leaves you vulnerable to becoming involved in violence and crime – drug dealing seems like the area's top profession – and rule number one is 'never tout'.
Berry's film paints a frustrating yet refreshingly even-handed portrait of a broken system: the cops know Michael isn't a drug dealer, but his 'no comment' stance leaves them little option but to charge him, while the courts have to be seen to deliver a punishment that fits his crime – a "short, sharp, shock" as the judge describes his inevitable custodial sentence.
By deftly side-stepping movie cliches – the tyrannical governor, sadistic/corrupt wardens – Michael Inside's depiction of prison life is somehow even more effectively horrifying.
The prison staff here are empathetic caretakers who simply ensure the national incarceration machine functions as it was designed: sadly, it's a flawed model which leaves ample opportunities for the weak and inexperienced to be preyed upon with extreme brutality.
"You've got to fight back in here," Michael's grandad tells him. This advice is echoed by friendly veteran lag, David (Moe Dunford), a bearlike prisoner who seems to have the terrified teenager's best interests at heart.
As you can probably guess, his ulterior motives soon put Michael in harm's way and at risk of a much longer stretch.
Michael Inside is a tense, depressing watch featuring some cracking performances – Flynn, Dunford and Roddy are all terrific – which will leave the viewer in little doubt that the notion of prison as 'rehabilitation' is often pure fantasy.
As David notes, "your sentence only starts when you're released".
:: Michael Inside is at QFT Belfast now. Tonight's 6.40pm screening will be followed by a Q&A with Frank Berry and Lalor Roddy. Book online at Queensfilmtheatre.com
MICHAEL INSIDE (rating tbc, 96mins) Drama. Dafhyd Flynn, Moe Dunford, Lalor Roddy, Ryan Lincoln, Hazel Doupe. Director: Frank Berry