16 Years of Alcohol (2003) Movie Review

Since Scotland’s film industry can be politely described as ‘non-existent’, the wide release of any local product should be cause for celebration, especially when it is as initially intriguing as long time critic turned director Richard Jobson’s “Sixteen Years of Alcohol”. The film promises a fresh take on the depressingly dull and stupefyingly earnest British school of gritty social realism, infusing the usual obsession with the minutiae of daily life with the poetic stylings of Wong Kar-Wai, who supposedly mentored and inspired Jobson and encouraged him to adapt his own poem for the screen.

Unfortunately, the match is not a good one, and the end result is a singularly uninteresting mess, a film which drowns, not in booze, but in ponderous self indulgence, pseudo-intellectual musings and an inability to honestly deal with or portray its subject matter. Whereas Kar-Wai manages to deflect concerns of narrative and emotional connection by seducing the viewer with lush, dreamlike imagery, Jobson flounders, desperately striving for relevance and realism, employing the worst excesses of art-house cinema and tacking them uncomfortably onto a tired, predictable story of an arrogant whiner’s quest for meaning and salvation.

The whiner in question is Frankie (Kevin McKidd, also in the excellent “Dog Soldiers”, as well as the director’s awful “The Purifiers”), with whom the film opens as he lies in the gutter, apparently dying after a vicious beating at the hands of an unseen assailant. Frankie’s narration takes us on a three stage flashback tour of his unfortunate life, from his early years as a child looking up to a hard drinking, womanising father, through his violent teenage years as the leader of a skinhead gang, and finally to his desperate attempts to break the cycle of self destruction and make something of his life.

This is obviously standard, unoriginal stuff, and is suspiciously similar to the kind of story so beloved by the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. To Jobson’s credit, he does at least attempt to shake up the usual formula, mainly by adhering less strictly to the demands of realism, and through injecting what he seems to believe to be lyricism into the proceedings. Unfortunately, this approach simply does not suit the film’s other aims and themes, and both detracts and distracts from any of Jobson’s efforts to convince the viewer of the harshness of Frankie’s life. The film breezes over most of the uncomfortable details, making only the vaguest of connections between alcohol and self destruction.

Worst of all, “Sixteen Years of Alcohol” features very little at all in the way of drinking, making nonsense of its title and leaving an inexplicable void where the seed of tragedy should be growing. Although there is no need for films to be graphic or blatant in depicting such issues, to deliberately and self consciously shy away from depicting or even referring to them smacks only of the worst kind of pretension, a fact confirmed by Jobson’s constant use of cryptic, wholly unrealistic dialogue which he clearly underlines and forces down the throat, frantically trying to convince the viewer of its meaningfulness.

As a character, Frankie is poorly defined and sketchily written, an unforgivable fault for a film of this sort. Although there is something to be said of allowing viewers to work out the nuances of a character for themselves, Frankie simply lacks any kind of depth or complexity, seeming to act solely as a mouthpiece for the director’s long tracts of cringe worthy poetry and ranting self-pity. Jobson seems only too aware of this failing, and makes the further mistake of trying to flesh out the character via an incessant voice over which basically consists of yet more pretentious drivel.

Since the rest of the cast mainly consist of stereotypes for the obnoxious Frankie to rage against, the viewer feels no emotional connection, or indeed sympathy for anyone, and therefore has little interest in the film as a whole. As a result of all these things, “Sixteen Years of Alcohol” very quickly becomes dull, and the only real entertainment comes through the unintentional hilarity caused by some of the long would-be soliloquies and the narrative’s over reliance on cliché and plot contrivances.

Jobson’s direction does not help matters by drawing quite obviously from his no-doubt vast cinematic knowledge and referencing other, immeasurably superior films, in particular Kubrick’s classic “A Clockwork Orange”. However, whilst Jobson happily lifts motifs like an alcoholic given free reign behind a bar, he does so inappropriately, and in a manner which serves only to further undermine his own ambitions. In addition to this, Jobson’s constant aping of Kar-Wai drags the pace of the film down to a crawl, with long close ups and odd vanity shots interrupted only by sudden chronological leaps which leave the viewer struggling to accept the seemingly unmotivated development of the protagonist.

Ultimately, there is nothing positive which can be said about “Sixteen Years of Alcohol”, save to mention the excellent performance of McKidd, who puts a brave face on a bad role. Unfortunately, even he cannot bring life or empathy to such a dull, meandering and laughably pompous film which offers no interest or entertainment other than as an unintentionally amusing parody of everything that is bad about art house cinema. The film serves not so much as the tragic cry for help of a tortured soul, but as the despairing howl of a nation desperately searching for a decent director to give it a cinematic voice.

Richard Jobson (director) / Richard Jobson (screenplay)
CAST: Kevin McKidd …. Frankie
Laura Fraser …. Helen
Susan Lynch …. Mary
Jim Carter …. Dirctor
Ewen Bremner …. Jake

Buy 16 Years of Alcohol on DVD