Dir. Gerard Johnson
Starring. Peter Ferdinando, Stephen Graham, Elisa Lasowski, Myanna Buring, Neil Maskell
UK DVD release July 6th 2015 from Metrodome Distribution.
Synopsis. For years, a corrupt ‘task force’ has been making a living out of pocketed drugs and deals with local gangs in London. But the walls are closing in, with an embittered Internal Investigator watching their every move. To make things worse, long standing allies in the Turkish mob are being picked off by a brutal Albanian people trafficking gang with no inclination to cooperate with anyone, forcing their leader Michael into a arrangement that could have deadly repercussions for those close to him.
Inspired by a chance meeting with a hard partying, off duty CID officer, Writer/Director Gerard Johnson had allegedly been developing a story about corrupt policemen for around 10 years. The film bears the fruits of such long development process, from it’s fully developed ensemble to evocative location work. Johnson goes to painstaking effort to portray the “real” London, or the one many choose not to see. The almost intrusive tracking shots following Ferdinando’s Michael as he navigates the city’s underbelly recall Alan Clarke’s seminal ‘Elephant’. The unsentimental, subjective camera is rarely more than a couple of ft away from him. Trouble is never far away either…
His city is barely visible, drenched in artificial light, from a balcony view lit by London’s night-time ambience to the deep red of a backstreet strip club. There are few scenes of broad daylight. Rarely in recent British cinema has the visual style of a film reflected the character’s state of mind more evocatively than it does here- the compromise between light and dark is at the centre of Michael’s internal conflict. Even the film’s credits are a barely visible dark blue on black..
It would be hard to talk about the success of ‘Hyena’ without acknowledging the film’s central tour de force performance. Ferdinando brilliantly channels both Harvey Keitel’s crumbling hubris in ‘Bad Lieutenant’ & the jaded resignation of Ben Gazzara’s doomed club owner in Cassavetes’s ‘Killing Of A Chinese Bookie’- both films Johnson claimed were in his mind during production in a recent interview with Trevor Johnston in Sight & Sound (Mar 2015). But Ferdinando’s muscular, vulnerable turn has its own unique energy. In a brutal, disorientating early scene, Michael hides in a furniture shop as his Turkish informer/associate is brutalised by two Albanian heavies. The fear and panic in his eyes are hardly typical of the calm & collected persona you’d expect from a film heavily influenced by the French crime films of Jean Pierre Melville. There’s an expression on his face, which will surely be coined ‘The Ferdinando’, of self-assured hubris, trying and failing to stop his lip from wobbling. He knows he’s met his match with this “new breed of criminal”. Michael’s is a fractured masculinity, a bad man who expects redemption but understands how far away it lies. He’s the titular ‘hyena’, who’s greatest talent is survival. The unconventional final scene plays with this idea to brilliant effect.
The richly realised array of characters that fill out Johnson’s world are strongly reminiscent of a Melville ensemble. Stephen Graham & Richard Dormer are suitably vile counterpoints as vengeful Police Force insiders with Michael in their sights, whilst non-professionals playing the Albanian Kabashi Brothers are a jointly terrifying screen presence. Buring and Maskell are solid also, as Michael’s trusted accomplices. But, arguably the most essential piece of the jigsaw is Elisa Lasowski’s tragic prostitute-turned secretary Ariana.
A key idea in ‘Hyena’ is that despite it’s status as a sprawling modern metropolis , London is also an intricate network of prisons, metaphorically and in one major plot strand, literally- involving a harrowing people trafficking sub-plot. The cruel sadism of the Albanian brothers is shown at its worst in their dehumanising treatment of Ariana. Johnson often holds back from the most stomach churning violence, only long enough to punctuate it with a sickening punchline. Her ordeal is unbearable to watch, but as the screenplay reminds us “…according to Home Office records, more than 4,000 trafficked girls are in the UK at any one time.”.
Johnson wanted to craft a classic crime drama, yet also a film about London as it is today, claiming that despite being a deliberate exercise in genre, he wanted the audience to consider what’s happening around them. Like the Copenhagen of Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Pusher’ or Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’, the London of ‘Hyena’ is a place where the underbelly is far darker, and closer than we imagine.