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Non-Review Review: Michael Inside

From writer and director Frank Berry, Michael Inside is harrowing, emotional and earnest look at cycles of incarceration affecting young Irish men from marginalised communities.

The plot of Michael Inside is fairly straightforward. As the title implies, the movie centres upon a young man named Michael who finds himself arrested in possession of drugs with a street value of two thousand euro. Receiving a custodial sentence, Michael finds himself incarcerated for three months. Michael must learn to navigate prison life, while his grandfather struggles to keep himself above ground on the outside. However, prison exerts a gravity, and escape is not as simple as release.

Inside, he’s dancing.

Michael Inside is an intense and claustrophobic experience. Asked early in the film if he suffers from any preexisting conditions, Michael responds, “Anxiety.” Shooting primarily in close-up with a hand-held camera, Michael Inside skillfully replicates that sensation. The characters constantly seem trapped and boxed in. Even before Michael is taken into custody, scenes are framed and blocked so as to suggest that he is trapped; the wire frame on crosswalks, the windows of the house, the bars of a fence. Michael Inside suggests that prison is more than just a physical construct.

Michael Inside is occasionally a little too earnest in its exploration of these vital and important themes, sometimes feeling more like an abstract civics lesson than an organic story. Still, there is no denying the raw emotional power of Michael Inside, particularly when director Frank Berry brings all the threads together at the climax of the story.

Everything, gone in a flash.

Michael Inside positions itself to take a holistic view of the culture of incarceration, rather than dealing with prison itself in isolation. The film returns time and again to the idea of incarceration as a perpetual cycle, as the inevitable outcome of a system that extends back generations, a sinister mechanism which fuels itself through families divided and trauma inflicted. What the audience learns of Michael’s background suggests prison is an inescapable inevitability for the young man; his mother died of an overdose when he was young, and his father has already been incarcerated for an extended period.

In the world of Michael Inside, prison is more than just a concrete building with guards on duty and bars on the window. Prison is a more abstract concept, a cage in which people live without realising it. Repeatedly over the course of the film, director Frank Berry positions the camera and the actors so as to suggest that these characters are imprisoned even in their homes or in the outside world. There is no small irony in this. As one inmate grimly assures Michael, “Your time only starts when you get out.”

A chance Meeting.

There is something approaching grand tragedy in all of this, in the way in which characters find their options curtailed and their choices restricted. Before his hearing, his grandfather urges Michael to tell his solicitor about the experiences that forced him to leave school early. “What has that to do with any of this?” asks Michael, frustrated. Michael Inside suggests that it has more to do with this than Michael might thing. Every avenue curtailed, every possibility cut off, every escape restricted; Michael Inside argues that these elements all contribute in their own way to Michael’s fate.

Michael Inside is meticulously and carefully researched, with the opening title card assuring the audience that Frank Berry worked with the Pathways programme, through a series of interviews and workshops. This lends Michael Inside an air of authenticity, with remarkable attention to detail in terms of the title character’s visceral experience. Berry keeps the camera tightly focused on Michael, often restricting the film’s perspective to something close to that of its protagonist, creating a palpable sense of unease. Nevertheless, the world around Michael feels well observed and recreated.

I like Mike.

That said, there are moments when Michael Inside feels a little too earnest. The film occasionally feels like an especially well-made after-school special, one exploring profound and important issues relating to the culture of incarceration and the cycles of crime within marginalised communities. At certain points, Michael himself feels too abstract, too perfectly constructed, to be a real person. Michael feels more like an idealised construct designed to win the audience’s sympathy, too passive and reactive to develop into a compelling character in his own right.

In these moments, Michael Inside feels almost academic. With certain creative choices and developments, Michael Inside seems more engaged with systems and cycles than with the human characters caught up in them, more committed to the important work of demonstrating these injustices and these trends than in providing an engaging narrative. Michael Inside occasionally plays like a case study, more an abstract meditation on a very worthy cause than a satisfying story in its own right.

Give it arrest.

There is something too mechanical in all of this, the film fixating upon the gears turning within the system more than the thwarted agency of the characters trapped within it. There are times when Michael Inside feels more like a civic-minded flow chart than a convincing story. While the power of tragedy often results from a sense of inevitability, certain developments feel too heavily signposted and too clearly set-up to lead to the required pay-off. In order to position the various elements just right, one can sense the writer and director’s hand on the scale.

Still, the film mitigates this issue through a set of strong central performances. Dafhyd Flynn helps to humanise the title character, to provide some of the depth that is occasionally missing from his characterisation. Lalor Roddy does good work as the protagonist’s grandfather, who finds himself just as trapped on the outside as Michael is on the inside. Among the supporting players, Moe Dunford deserves special mention as a violent and complicated inmate who takes Michael under his wing.

Now you’re Dunford.

Berry deserves considerable credit as well. There are moments when Michael Inside really clicks into place, where all the various threads come together in something approaching a symphony. The film’s closing scenes are harrowing and affecting, offering dramatic pay-off for everything leading up to that point. The sequence benefits from a genuinely affecting score from Daragh O’Toole, a long-term collaborator of Frank Berry who worked with director on both Ballymun Lullaby and I Used to Live Here.

Michael Inside is a powerful and important piece of Irish cinema, even if its storytelling feels overly engineered in places. It is an impressive accomplishment from Berry, and a film that has something genuinely important to say.

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