DVD Review: Diary of A Bad Lad
Blackburn, Lancashire; to most minds, a fairly innocuous city in north west England, that few people would even have heard of were it not for John Lennon’s reference to it in A Day In The Life. But, as is ever the case, there’s a lot of dark and dirty business going on beneath the sleepy exterior, and media studies teacher Barry Lick (Williams, also the screenwriter) and his crew of inexperienced students set out to expose this dark underbelly by making a documentary about some rather dubious local businessmen, Tommy Morghen (O’Byrne) and his superior, referred to under the assumed name Ray Topham (Miller). Naturally it’s not long before their DV tapes are overflowing with drugs, porno and violence. All great material for fledgling filmmakers, even if they are in way over their heads – but just who is using who?
Here’s the first thing I suggest in approaching Diary of a Bad Lad: completely disregard the terrible title. It’s cheesy, it makes little sense (who is the ‘bad lad’ in question, Tommy or Ray?), and it implies a brand of gangster film that has long since gone stale, Britain having pumped out untold numbers of them in the wake of Guy Ritchie’s first two efforts. All of which is a shame, for this film is considerably more intelligent and powerful than that. Doing the pseudo-documentary approach far better than most in recent memory (Zombie Diaries, anyone?), this is a sophisticated, layered and often genuinely disturbing film about the insidious nature of crime, and how hard it is to get out of once you’re stuck in its web. Lick and his young crew not only document how the criminal underworld sucks in those they capture on film, but how it sucks in the filmmakers themselves: cameraman Michael (director Booth) lured by the prospect of finance for his first feature; sound guy Birtie (Birtwhistle) attracted to the drugs, women and power; and Lick himself finding it cosy at the right hand of the throne.
The filmmaker characters are no-budget amateurs, so the actual film’s no-budget amateur production values are entirely appropriate. Thankfully, the writing and performances are of a uniformally professional standard. For the most part, the unsuspecting viewer could be forgiven for mistaking this for a genuine documentary, and this is to the immense credit of the cast and crew. There are a number of remarkably tense sequences, not least of which is an interview with a spaced-out junkie that slowly escalates into an outright confrontation, with dire consequences. However, while the acting is superb all around, particular mention has to be given to Joe O’Byrne, who succeeds in making Tommy a truly terrifying character; not some caricaturish villian that we’re so used to seeing in British gangster films, but a truly believable figure of fear, the kind of guy you might very well encounter doing dodgy deals and ruining lives in reality.
Despite a few slightly misjudged elements – an overlong riff on A Clockwork Orange’s high-speed sex scene, an unresolved subplot of a female crew member being seduced into the skin trade, and of course the atrocious choice of title – Diary of a Bad Lad is overall a shining example of how good no-budget indie filmmaking can be when the requisite work is put into it. Nor have they skimped out on the DVD, stuffing it with a great deal of extra material including a behind the scenes featurette, additional footage, and even a novel in the DVD-ROM section. Up and coming no-budget DV filmmakers, take note: this is the kind of standard you should be aspiring to.