Oy oy! Instead of a much-desired Dick Van Dyke biopic, The Guv’nor tells the life story of Lenny McClean, the famous bare-knuckle boxer, bouncer, author, actor, and part-time flower arranger. We see his life from its unpleasant, abusive beginnings, to his time as the self-proclaimed “hardest man in Britain”, to his ultimate end as an autobiographical author and actor in Guy Ritchie’s Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Along the way, we try and learn how this man came to rage with such bullish fervour.
A third of the way through this film, someone claims that bare-knuckle fighting is an art form. They may be right, but we’re hardly convinced when the first footage we see of Lenny is him beating another man about the head, then kicking his body repeatedly after he falls to the floor. How could we possibly sympathise with a man who does such a thing? And how could a film be made about him without implicitly validating this behaviour?
Well, The Guv’nor isn’t strictly about Lenny: it’s more about his son, Jamie, who guides us through the documentary as a narrator and interviewer. Jamie didn’t grow up with the terrifying man who once bit someone’s nose off in a fight – he grew up with a kind family man, who spoiled him at Christmas and cried when he moved out the house. One thing Lenny repeatedly states in interviews is that he didn’t want his kids getting involved in his profession. But while Jamie never got into boxing, he did inherit his dad’s temper. One striking scene sees an interview with family members cut short by Jamie starting a fight with a local, claiming he was looking at him funny. There is something tragic, too, about the fact that he recently did a spell in jail. Will his life be forever shaped by the sins of the father?
The documentary weakens when it moves away from this emotional core. Sentimental piano music is used far too much, and there is something uncomfortable about having an ex-Krays associate defend Lenny, or hearing justification for his violence over the fact that he suffered from OCD. The film would have benefitted with some distance – its premise seems to be, “Yes, he beat people to a pulp, but…” Still, the man was clearly complicated, and this is a well-made film – if a little too uncritical.
The Guv’nor is released in selected cinemas on Friday 7th October.
Watch the trailer for The Guv’nor here: