The order of the day in Gerard Johnson’s supremely intense…

Muscle review: Bulging biceps, brutish bullies and male obsession are the order of the day in Gerard Johnson’s supremely intense and completely brilliant third feature following impressive turns with Tony and Hyena. Read our Muscle film review below.

The North, Newcastle to be specific, and we open to Cavan Clerkin’s Simon Barratt, a thirty-something stuck in a job he hates – a sales-heavy call centre position grinding him into the ground with bosses constantly looking over him. At home, life doesn’t seem to be much better with girlfriend Sarah (Polly Maberly), struggling to keep listening to his constant moaning about his job, and perhaps a little lost herself. Desperate to change something, Simon decides to join a local gym, paying upfront for 6 months in an attempt to both get fit and improve his thinking, outlook and general mental health. There he meets the towering Terry (Craig Fairbrass), a bullish mountain who approaches Simon with an offer to train him: “Fuck fit. You want to get big, and you want to get strong,” is his mantra, delivered to Simon at their first meeting. What follows is an examination of the journey both go on and the massive dominance and influence Terry has on Simon’s where his motivations may not be as they first seem.

From the outset, Muscle is a totally absorbing, uttering impressive piece of work. The black and white palette of Stuart Bentley’s cinematography perfectly compliments the grittiness of the narrative with heavily saturated monotones, small depth of field focus and controlled but documentary-style approach. Early scenes in the gym showing the tape peeling off of some of the equipment and the battered barbells are a perfect example of the brilliant photography – you can almost taste the sweat.

The pacing of the piece is perfect, Johnson’s screenplay and staging of it, holding the viewer’s attention throughout. It’s a difficult watch in places due to the intensity, especially during the final act, but this is much less violent than his last effort, Hyena, the filmmaker this time preferring to apply a foreboding, pressure-cooker approach to his storytelling where around every corner you’re expecting something rather unpleasant is about to happen. There is one hugely explicit scene halfway in, absolutely central to the plot, but one that I certainly wasn’t expecting – again another wonderful shot and edited sequence which really shows the world in which Simon has been pulled into.

One of the biggest attributes of the film is the acting on display, particularly from its two leads. Cavan Clerkin is excellent as Simon, and his transformation from shrinking violet office worker in the opening scenes through to shaven-headed, Viking-bearded bodybuilder in the scenes that follow, carried off with not only physical changes but also subtle moves and mild mannerisms in how he holds himself on-screen. He is brilliant.

The star of the show though is Craig Fairbrass in a career-best performance; a role that he has clearly relished playing. He throws himself into the part, a deeply layered character performance which literally engulfs the screen. It is an exceptional piece of acting.

The film does tail off in the last reel, the ending suffering as a result, but with the ninety minutes we’ve been subjected to previously more than make up for that slight criticism. A gritty, truly intense, totally absorbing character piece, and absolutely one of the best British films we’ve seen all year.

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