Monday, 1 May 2017

The Frontline (1993)

The Frontline is the debut feature film from Boston Kickout director Paul Hills. Aged just 21 and armed with enthusiasm and naivety Hills wrote, produced, directed and edited The Frontline, a film which took three years to complete from 1990 to 1993.

Vincent Phillips stars as James King, a young man newly released from a psychiatric hospital in London. Given his freedom, he hitches a ride up to Manchester, and the run down and tumultuous Moss Side area, keen to look up an old flame in the shape of local pirate radio DJ, Marion (Amanda Noar). At first she's reluctant to reignite their passion, but eventually the pair resume their love affair - an affair that runs the risk of breaking down when Marion's drug addiction becomes apparent. James makes it his mission to help Marion kick the habit and get clean and just when the future is looking rosy for them both, Marion winds up dead and her murder seems to point towards a man with some considerable power in the region; local MP, William Armstrong (Renny Krupinski).

The eponymous 'Frontline' itself refers to Moss Side and Hulme. Back in the '80s and early '90s, this was an impoverished no-go area in which gangs were profligate and danger lurked around every corner. Left more or less to fend for themselves, the residents created their own resources, including pirate radio and it was here that the tightrope between 'Madchester' and 'Gunchester' was walked. As a time capsule it's quite a worthwhile document, capturing as it does the urban decay and destruction from a decades worth of Tory rule in what proved to be the dying days of their regime, as well as attempting to highlight the cities creative and eccentric culture and the cross-over in casting Factory Records impresario Tony Wilson in his day job as a TV journalist with Granada Reports, there on the scene for the film's bloody denouement. Even John Mundy from BBC's Northwest Tonight pops up in a film that isn't blessed with familiar faces or star names. In fact reliable character actors Geoffrey Leesley (Bergerac, Casualty and Brookside) and a young Tim Dantay (Alan Partridge's builder friend) are probably the most recognisable faces for audiences, and if you're familiar with your Mancunian rock from the period, you'll see some live footage from the New Fast Automatic Daffodils performing in a club scene.

The key theme in Hills' feature is the notion of insanity being both condemned and condoned depending on your class and status; Moss Side is essentially an example of  that old adage about 'the lunatics taking over the asylum' and it is ironic that the newly released James sets up home there. But the real psychotic in the plot is Renny Krupinski's killer, the privileged William Armstrong MP, a man whose dangerous mental health is kept largely hidden and ignored.

However this is an extremely low budget debut feature and one that was extremely difficult to create, so it's not surprising that the overall result is a bit of a noble failure. Hills himself has described the three year long process as an absolute nightmare; in the film's initial stages, he was sleeping rough in Manchester Piccadilly and subsequently progressed to sleeping on the floors of cast and crew once he had assembled them, basically for no money whatsoever. Each day's filming ran the risk of running out of film at any given moment, meaning often only two takes were ever done. It makes for an amateurish, rough and ready end product and, by Hills' own admittance, he was perhaps to young and naive to attempt such a film in the first place. It's true that the essential message of 'drugs are bad, and so is the establishment' is a painfully earnest and sketchy one from a young filmmaker and he seems to struggle between a straight attempt at social realism and something more heightened (the scenes featuring the police are especially heightened and fit awkwardly around everything else). The on-the-hoof nature of the shoot means that it's sometimes hard to make sense of some sequences and I'm not sure the plot holds up to much scrutiny either, but what cannot be denied is that this is quite an impressive effort from a first time filmmaker with zero budget and a myriad of pressures. Hills' next feature, Boston Kickout, was a marked improvement that was no doubt achieved by the lessons he learnt here.

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