I love a good prison drama. Whether it’s the harsh, brutal realities of movies like A Sense Of Freedom, Carandiru and Hunger, the escapist pleasures of action flicks like Escape from New York and Lock-Up, obvious Christ-allegories like Cool Hand Luke, the spiritually uplifting The Shawshank Redemption or the surrealistic delights of Bronson or Chopper, prison movies offer us a glimpse of a closed society of brutal savagery, rigid codes of honour and behaviour, internecine politics, despair and redemption. When it comes to TV, all you Guardian readers can keep The Wire, viewers who watched them both know that Oz was the best TV show of the last 20 years. And almost 40 years later, you can still get a laugh out of Porridge. You can’t say the same for Terry and June. Prisons terrify us, they fascinate us. They’re a pressure-cooker world, a stage on which you can set almost any story. It’s a shame then that Ghosted settles for telling you one you’ve heard a hundred times.
Model prisoner Jack (John Lynch) is a couple of months from release when his wife Dear Johns him, ending their marriage on the anniversary of their son’s tragic death. Devastated by this betrayal, Jack finds himself unwillingly drawn to the plight of new boy Paul (Martin Compston), a young, naïve inmate being groomed for something nasty by the prison’s psycho top-dog Clay (an oily Craig Parkinson). ‘Ghosted’ (transferred suddenly and without warning) from his previous prison after suffering abuse at the hands of the other prisoners, Paul is easy prey, the lowest morsel on the prison food chain. After he’s attacked and sexually assaulted by Clay, the paternal Jack takes the younger convict under his wing, protecting him and showing him the ropes, teaching him how to survive. But as the bond between the two men grows, the secret behind Paul’s transfer threatens to destroy them both.
Ghosted is a by-the-numbers prison flick, rolling out every well-worn cliché of the genre without adding anything new or original. You can almost see the post-it notes that debutante writer-director used to assemble, rather than, write his script. Sensitive, naïve new inmate with a secret. Check. Predatory, bum-raping bad guy. Check. Dodgy, ambiguous screw. Check. Racial tension. Check. Wise, spiritual con. Check. Good man seeking redemption. Check. Getting raped in the shower and stabbed in the yard. Check and double check.
Despite what seems like a rash of TV doctors, Holby City alumni Hugh Quarshie and Art Malik (also the executive producer), unconvincingly playing convict tough guys, the film’s major strength is its performances. Never the subtlest of actors, John Lynch is intense and compelling as the brooding Jack, a barely-controlled storm of grief and rage searching for redemption. As the slimy Clay, Craig Parkinson is the tracksuited bastard child of those great prison top-dogs Porridge‘s Grouty and Prisoner: Cell Block H‘s Bea Smith. A malevolent, insidious presence, he’s volatile and unpredictable, a little man on the outside who’s bullied his way to the top of the heap. The always reliable David Schofield is refreshingly ambiguous as the dodgy screw Donner, determined to maintain order whatever the cost, while Art Malik’s wise con Ahmed feels like an obvious device to aid Jack’s spiritual growth. The film is stolen however by Martin Compston who brings a naked vulnerability to the naïve young convicted, consumed by guilt and regret, and his scenes with Lynch are subtle and affecting as the two men bond and grow fond of one another, filling the gaping voids in each other’s lives.
While it lacks the visual and narrative inventiveness of the likes of The Escapist or Bronson, and the film’s crucial final reveal relies on a hard-to-swallow twist, a stupendous bureaucratic screw-up and a lack of guile that borders on retarded, Ghosted is far superior to recent British prison dramas like Screwed, which felt like a cruel and unusual punishment inflicted on a wrongly-convicted audience. Downbeat and sentimental, Ghosted is a prison movie patchwork, content to recycle elements from movies like The Animal Factory, Scum and On The Yard. Its competently made and well-shot but you can’t quite shake that feeling of déjà vu.
John Lynch, Martin Compston, David Schofiield, Art Malik, Craig Parkinson