Bringing the wild west to the North East, Vince Woods’ Harrigan offers a moody warning against the dangers of police cuts amidst blackouts and strikes.
Crime And Punishment by Mark Wilshin
Set during the rolling blackouts and three-day coal miners’ strikes of 1974, Harrigan opens on the black streets of Newcastle, the light of a streetlamp fizzling out just as the darkness of crime is taking over. Police budgets have been cut, and the force centralised and restructured, closing local section houses in favour of patrol cars, also leading to some creative crime reporting, burglars swallowing petty thefts for the sake of the police books and screening off hotspots such as the crime-ridden Monkshire estate. But there’s a new sergeant in town – the vitriolic Harrigan shaking up both the force (with its resident feckless alcoholics) and the criminal underworld on the Tyne. He’s bringing policing back to the streets.
Following a fire at his home and a attachment in Hong Kong fighting the city’s triads, hardened police officer Barry Harrigan (Stephen Tompkinson) returns to the North East to bring peace to the city on the Tyne. Newcastle is in the midst of strikes, blackouts and a crime wave caused by police cutbacks. And Harrigan is slowly drawn back into the city’s dark, violent underbelly, coming to the aid of Vickey (Amy Manson) – brutalised by crook Dunstan (Craig Conway) for not paying her debts, and talking down non-striking scab Ronnie (Ian Whyte) from gutting his baby with a knife, a desperate man at the end of his tether. He struggles to fit back in to the force, which is learning new (corner-cutting) ways of policing, but he strikes up renewed friendships with Billy (Maurice Roëves) anxious over break-ins at the memorial centre, and colleague Bridie (Gillian Kearney), violently abused by her husband. Justice is coming to Tyneside meted out by a man on fire.
With its Seventies’ soundtrack and its portrait of a firebrand sergeant let loose, Vince Woods’ debut feature Harrigan is an odd cross between TV dramas Life On Mars and Luther. And the references don’t stop there – there’s a clown’s mask (part Stephen King’s It, part Scream and part Anonymous-styled V for Vendetta) as well as a would-be Odessa steps moment from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (or is it rather Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables?) as crime gang victim Vickey struggles with both a running toddler and a rolling pram. In fact, much of Harrigan is achingly familiar – the cop weeks away from retirement with a troubled and undisclosed past (and even a spell in Hong Kong to sharpen his skills frequently revisited in flashback) returning to his old stomping ground to take on Sin City and an institutionalised network of corruption and backhanders.
There are even some extravagant scenes, almost operatic in their excess, such as the Amazing Grace intoned bloody murder of a police grass, or the knife-brandishing fervour of a scab father pushed to the brink. Yet, despite the rather haphazard portrait of Newcastle’s crimescape and its law-enforcing adversary the ‘polis’, Harrigan offers a vigorously male police force itching to get their hands dirty. Under Harrigan’s command, the boys lay into the local working men in a pub brawl, while the lone ranger pays out bloody retribution to Bridie’s abusive husband. And there’s no doubt that women here are victims, Vickey brutalised and raped by Dunstan and Bridie repeatedly beaten and bruised by her husband, Harrigan the male bulwark desperate to protect the vulnerable – fuelled by self-recriminations for not having saved his daughter. But in the final-reel, as Dunstan gets his comeuppance, the victims fight back – Vickey with her dog, Bridie taking cockney villain Cole to task and Ronnie stepping up in Harrigan’s defence. It’s an infernal redemption through violence – a questionable but red-blooded symbol of Seventies (female) empowerment.
For both Harrigan and Newcastle, it’s the start of a new era. But as Harrigan continues to hand out black spots Treasure Island style to Tyneside’s next generation criminals (with a rather ludicrous, cartoony pre-credits scream “Haaaarrigaaaan!”), it’s perhaps a second instalment Vince Woods is angling for. And maybe a TV series would fit the story better. It’s dark and violent, (even if the criminals’ toughness is more cod than chilling) and often beautifully shot, in no small measure aided by the oil-lamp and candlelight practicals demanded by the blackout. Great performances from the film’s leads are let down though by an over-reaching and clichéd script, but it’s nevertheless a brassy look at Britain’s dark streets.
Harrigan is released on 20th September 2013 in the UK