Mickey B (2007, UK)
Just how much acclaim should you give a film for its worthiness alone? As an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Mickey B is just OK (and even then, much better, I suspect, if you’re familiar with the plot of Macbeth; half the pleasure is in the recognition of each new character and scene). But as a story of a group of real prisoners, mostly murderers and long-termers in Maghaberry Prison in Northern Ireland, making some important discoveries about themselves while making the film, it’s inspiring.
Macbeth lends itself wonderfully to the prison setting. As director Tom Magill notes, “It’s about treachery, about betrayal, about loyalty.” And violence. “We’re familiar with those things, ” says one of the prisoners, Jason Thompson. It’s also about being consumed and motivated by ambition. “It’s what pushes (Macbeth) on,” says Thompson. “There’s plenty of boys in here that are the same. If they weren’t ambitious, they wouldn’t be in jail, because they wouldn’t be trying to get something that they didn’t have.” None of that is missed on the cast.
Mickey B is set inside a fictional private prison, Burnam, where staff patrol the perimeter with vicious guard dogs, but are entirely absent within the walls. The prisoners have the run of the joint, and are led by a commanding but fading Duncan (Sam McClean, who co-wrote the script and who plays Duncan and reminded me of a dignified Willie Nelson). Duncan is nearing release and tells his two burly right-hand-men, Mickey B (Macbeth, David Conway) and Banknote (Banquo) that he has decided to pass over the leadership mantle to his son, Malcolm.
Mickey B isn’t happy. He didn’t fight Duncan’s battles in C Wing for this - plus his ascension to being top man was foretold by the three masked prison bookies (substituting admirably for Macbeth’s witches). And he is egged on to avenge the insult by the excellent, tarot-worshipping Ladyboy (Thompson, whose performance in the Lady Macbeth role is the strongest of all the actors by some distance). The spousish relationship between Mickey B and Ladyboy, and the associated depiction of a man goaded into action by his ambitious ‘wife’, is at the heart of the film and possibly the only part that captures some of the drama of the original; once Mickey B has bloodily assumed the top dog’s spot and Malcolm has fled to protection, the script seems to run out of puff. The actors are, not unexpectedly, amateurish, and once Duncan and Ladyboy are no more there are few who can carry the final scenes. The final insurgency led by Duffer (Macduff) almost seems to serve no purpose other than allow the film to be faithful to Shakespeare’s story.
But the real power of the project is in listening to the accounts of those involved in the documentary that accompanies the film. To hear the hard-nut prisoners who were very sceptical of the drama and video classes at the outset, thinking they were being tricked into participating in an Enhanced Thinking Skills course. To witness their (naturally understated) joy at being involved in the project, with Protestants and Catholics “all getting on… as happy as Larry.” And to see the learnings they took from the story: the power of trusting others in the team, being surprised by the competence of others, sensing the boost to their own self-esteem, exceeding expectations, and being prompted to examine their own pasts and the consequences of violence. The realisation of the need to “come up with other, better solutions.” The need to “sort things out, work through it slowly… be more diplomatic” when confronted with hard issues.
You might not make this compulsory viewing for those working and living in prisons, but there would be worse things than liberally splashing it about.
Posted on February 6th, 2010 at 9:02 pm. Updated on August 13th, 2012 at 10:24 pm.
#247 in the Top 500