David Binder gives his thoughts on Michael Winterbottom’s new film on the impact of a father’s imprisonment on his family. The film featured at the BFI Festival and will be screened on Channel 4 this November.
Films and TV programmes documenting crime and prison life are nothing particularly new, and (for the most part) have been well received by audiences and critics alike. One only has to look at the successes of shows like the US smash ‘Prison Break’, the Oscar winning film ‘Shawshank Redemption’, or in the UK, cult favourites like ‘Porridge’ and more recently, the BBC1 series ‘Prisoners Wives’, for confirmation of this. Clearly then, there’s something in the western cultural psyche that’s fascinated by the prison world and whilst many might question the portrayal of prison and prisoners in the aforementioned shows and films, it is evident that offerings depicting penal society (whether in TV or Film) aren’t going away any time soon.
With this in mind, Michael Winterbottom’s latest film, ‘Everyday’ debuting at the London Film Festival in October this year, seemingly looks to continue in this vein by taking a five year period of the life of a family deeply affected by imprisonment, John Simm’s Ian playing the father in and out of the cell. Yet as much as focussing on Simm’s time in jail, Winterbottom chooses to centre in on the trials, tribulations and triumphs of those left on ‘the outside’, with Karen, played by Shirley Henderson being the mother and wife left to raise four young children in rural Norfolk. As such, Everyday purposely doesn’t have a start or end point, Winterbottom wishing to demonstrate that as much as being a film about prison and its effects on the family, Everyday is an offering exploring the passage of time; the key message being that life continued for the family before the film, and will carry on well after, despite numerous uncertainties (the latter being a theme we will return to later).
Moving on, Everyday should be commended for its committed realism in conveying (for the most part) prison life itself and its effects on the family. One really got the sense for example of the reality of single parent life with four children, and moreover, it was clear from the outset that Winterbottom and his team had done their research in regard to the UK prison regime. It was good to see for instance how accurate visiting times and the corresponding interactions between Ian and his children were depicted and perhaps more affecting on the family. In addition, the common movement of prisoners between prisons around England and Wales (Ian being subject to this in the film) and its related consequences for the family was also explored. It is often taken for granted that frequent movement of a father between different prisons can adversely affect the family in terms of unearthly wake up times, long and arduous journeys to the prison and the need to take the children out of school in order to see the parent. This difficulty was excellently encapsulated in one scene where things had got just a little bit too much for the youngest son Shaun who became rather tearful due to ‘tiredness’ (according to mother Karen) when visiting his father.
Another theme which went a long way to adding authenticity to this offering’s portrayal prison and its effects of the family was that of uncertainty and its relationship to the concept of desistance. This was especially demonstrable through Simm’s character. That is, throughout the film we were left wondering about Ian’s desire to change his behaviour. On the one-hand, we had various impassioned pleas and commitments throughout, particularly directed at his wife. Yet on the other, his behaviour leads the audience to question the extent to which his desire for change is genuine. Again, this added a welcome element of realism, and shed valuable light on the simplistic notion of someone entering prison, being reformed, and coming out the other side a totally new man or woman.
Indeed, one could not consistently applaud the film for its realism without giving due credit to the excellent performances of all the family, particularly the children (played by four siblings from the same family, the Kirks) who despite their tender years, gave extremely mature performances. Yet, one felt it would have been nice to hear and see more from the two daughters in the film. Whilst Winterbottom might have been attempting to portray the relative shyness of the girls in comparison to the two boys, this I felt wasn’t made clear enough and it very much felt that the girls and their insights were side-lined at the expense of the other characters. In addition, and perhaps due to the conscious decision discussed earlier to have the film without any definitive bookends, the screenplay at various points seemed somewhat unfocussed, lacking clarity and purpose. The problem wasn’t so much that at points there wasn’t much going on, but that these sections lacked purpose and didn’t seem to be heading anywhere. Thus, at times ‘Everyday’ looked slightly unpolished, lacking in focus at one or two points.
All in all though, this offering has much to commend it. It succeeds in being both nuanced enough not to crudely impose a certain ideology on its audience and realistic enough to reveal the often difficult realities of the effects of the imprisonment of a parent on those who are left behind to keep going. It was also somewhat refreshing to see the picture offer no overly simplistic answers regarding both the criminological and family issues presented in the film. It is to Michael Winterbottom’s credit that he persists with the theme of uncertainty right until the end, and it is the audience who is left asking at the end whether Ian’s latest release from prison will be his last and intriguingly, how eldest son Robert’s subtle withdrawal from the rest of the family unit will manifest itself in later life. Thus, whilst Everyday is not without its flaws, it is a worthwhile and mostly engaging watch, and with it due to be shown on Channel 4 in November it is well worth looking out for in the TV programme listings!