Australian film Stir does not make for a nice Saturday night movie. It is full of terrible physical violence and repetitive dirty words. There is nothing about a prison to give viewers a vicarious thrill. There are no women to take attention away from enraged men on both sides of the bars.
But it’s a good film and parts of it come close to being great.
As the title suggests, Stir is set in a prison where there is an extremely bad relationship between the inmates and the guards. Perhaps that relationship is always bad everywhere.
But it becomes worse with the return to gaol – and to old friends and enemies – of China Jackson (Bryan Brown), a toughie determined to do his six months with as little trouble as possible ad get out.
Jackson is doing this stretch for shoplifting. His enemies see this crime as demeaning, and China does indeed look bashful when it is mentioned.
The difficulty is that he is in a bad gaol where warders and prisoners make it impossible for him to lie low and say ‘nuffin. He is flushed into action, almost against his will.
China Jackson is a complex character, strong but desperate, unable to equate his position – back in prison again – with what he expected of life the last time he got out. Dennis Miller gives a remarkable portrayal of a wily crook, cynical seducer of a young clerk (Michael Gow) who has been backing slow horses with the bank’s money.
Max Phipps inspires contempt and pity as Norton, a warder who regrets earlier brutality and tries to explain himself to China, who casts a cold eye on him. Ted Robshaw and Paul Sonkkila, little known until now, are mesmerising as different types of prison officers.
Gary Waddell gives an inspired portrait of instability, the man on the gaol slack-wire.
There is a notable lack of cliche in the characters and characterisations and those who think Ronnie Barker’s Porridge series gave a fair representation of prison life are in for a bit of a shock.
The big set-piece is a riot that achieves catharsis for some prisoners and a burned-out prison for all. There is no hope, and not even anger left when it is all over.
Filmed in the Clare Valley, Gladstone and the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, Stir was inspired by the true-life prison riot at Bathurst Gaol in 1974 and its subsequent Royal Commission into New South Wales Prisons.
The script is by Bob Jewson, who was an inmate of Bathurst Gaol at the time of the riots.