John McVicar died on 6 September 2022 of a heart attack, aged 82. He was a seasoned ex-convict who turned his hand from armed robbery to a career in journalism, writing about crime and justice for the Guardian, the New Statesman and Spiked. However, this biopic is not about McVicar, the autodidact. Instead, it is a crime film about McVicar’s 1968 prison break that’s told with an austere, turn-of-the-’80s aesthetic comparable to Scum, The Black Panther and The Long Good Friday.
Roger Daltrey’s presence may raise questions about McVicar’s seriousness, but this isn’t a lazy rock star vehicle — Daltrey assumes the role with a sinewy attitude that doesn’t want for credibility. Credible too are McVicar’s fellow inmates and the staff who corral them at HMP Durham, where life is stark but not without goodwill. There is a fair amount of camaraderie, in fact, with conflict rarely going beyond coarse words. However, the pompous governor swiftly ruins this with haughty demands for uniforms and compliance, which achieves nothing but rebellion and a cunning escape plan between McVicar and his mate Walter Probyn (Adam Faith).
Like in other prison break films — Escape from Alcatraz, Escape from Pretoria — we see the painstaking trial and error in the inmates’ bid for freedom and we learn once again to never underestimate a career criminal with arts and crafts equipment. McVicar may have been a rotten bastard back in the late 1960s, but you can’t resist the vicarious thrill when his feet touch the streets, the paths and the train tracks back to his life in London.
McVicar comes together as a British crime film, but what about the transfer? Well, Fabulous Films have lived up to their name, bringing a wholesale improvement to lighting, grading and detail. They’ve also commissioned two meaningful extras: ‘Doing time with McVicar,’ a thorough making-of documentary featuring Roger Daltrey, and ‘McVicar on McVicar’, an interview between McVicar and actor Keith Allen.
The latter feature finally reveals McVicar, the autodidact. He is an intelligent and considered subject, answering Allen’s questions with sincere introspection. The film’s prison escape is an exciting narrative focus, but I wish McVicar had shown this side of the man.