Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Review : Tyrannosaur

This uncompromising feature directorial debut from Paddy Considine opens with an act of such forceful, mindless brutality that it's immediately clear that we'll be spending the next 90 minutes exploring the darker recesses of humanity. In fact, this opening sequence, in which Joseph (Peter Mullan) kicks his dog to death after being evicted from a local boozer for starting trouble, is perhaps Considine's most restrained touch in a film that offers little relief in its portrayal of abusive relationships and behavioural cycles steeped in violence.

- "I prayed for you last night."
- "Well, it didn't fucking work."

Joseph is a man with an almost non-existent fuse, an angry loner with little impulse control, prone to outbursts of raging invective and vituperation since the loss of his wife 5 years ago (although there's enough to suggest he was perhaps little different when she was alive). Whether railing at the Asian post office staff as he collects his dole, muttering into his pint or attacking teenagers in the pub, Joseph is one of 'God's lonely men', a modern Dostoevskian figure cut from the same cloth as Schrader's anti-heroes, albeit on an inverted trajectory towards a reluctant redemption that begins as well as ends with acts of violence, rejecting externalised, intangible paths to salvation for one of his own making, one that encompasses a brutal sense of moral justice tainted by the despair surrounding him and fuelled by a compulsive rage.

After the aforementioned attack on the kids in the pub, Joseph hides out behind a rail of clothes in a nearby charity shop, to the startled bemusement of volunteer shopkeeper Hannah (Olivia Colman). Incommunicative and trembling, he announces his name as 'Robert De Niro' (cementing the Schrader connection), bursting into tears of frustration at Hannah's well-intentioned attempts at spiritual guidance and offers of prayer.

It soon becomes apparent though that it's not just Joseph taking refuge in the shop. Hannah lives some distance away from the poverty surrounding her work, and Joseph is quick to viciously attack her good samaritan acts towards both himself and his community, throwing her religious beliefs back in her face as self-serving, but when we follow her home after work and a picture of the abuse suffered in her domestic life at the hands of psychotic husband James (Eddie Marsan) rears its ugly head, the shop and the abrasive comfort offered by Joseph take the form of shelters in which to temporarily forget what awaits her at home, albeit both as tenuous as the religious platitudes she steadfastly clings to, like mantras of hope.

Considine pulls no punches in his depiction of the pain that encompasses the lives of his protagonists. Images of death, decay and loss permeate throughout, a photograph of Joseph's dead wife gazes from his mantelpiece and his bed-ridden friend wheezes his way towards the end of a painful battle with cancer. When James asks Hannah why she doesn't fuck him anymore, he suggests it's because he 'smells like a dead animal' and the young boy Sam (Samuel Bottomley) that lives opposite Joseph mourns the destruction of a stuffed toy, the last sentimental remnant of his father. Abuse and revulsion is pervasive in all relationships portrayed, most clearly shown as James beats, rapes and urinates on Hannah, but also in Sam's treatment at the hands of his mother's boyfriend and the disgust with which each of the protagonists views themselves. In fact, the few moments that raise a smile directly and indirectly relate to Joseph's drinking buddy Tommy (a great Ned Dennehy), whose talk of winning an accumulator bet and starting a zoo or fucking the Queen provide welcome (if infrequent) relief.

The performances from all concerned are exceptional, perhaps no surprise in respect to Mullan, who's not a stranger to similarly shaded roles. But Olivia Colman is quite simply a revelation, delivering a performance of extraordinary power, the scene where she comforts him after receiving a nasty beating at his hands second only to the gut-wrenching speech she gives to Joseph towards the end. Only Eddie Marsden suffers somewhat, perhaps by necessity of focus, he's not given enough screen time to entirely develop his character beats beyond those of a violent bully, as it stands there's certainly enough here for us to revile him, but perhaps not enough to understand her acceptance of his actions or why such a disparate couple are together for any reason aside from fear and a humiliating dominance.

Considine directs with absolute assurance, and the breathtaking performances he elicits from his actors are never in doubt, but in some respects the control he exercises over every other aspect of Tyrannosaur, whilst impressive when admired individually, often fail to come together as a whole. One often finds oneself distracted by his technique at the expense of the emotional impact of his narrative, the widescreen photography by Erik Wilson is certainly striking and Considine frames every image with painterly precision, but it can prove overwhelming, taking one out of the picture rather than drawing one in, a musical montage sequence at a wake grating especially. It's a problem that also extends to the writing, albeit to a lesser degree; the pain that is piled onto the characters and most obviously the explanation of the film's title feel like a writer's contrivances, and whilst the performances prevent the film from slipping into total inauthenticity, it's still apparent and means Tyrannosaur fails to attain the raw, visceral power of Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth (1997) or Mullan's own NEDS (2010), and perhaps the closest comparison would be a film by another actor turned director, Tim Roth's The War Zone (1999), which whilst also impressive, suffered similarly.

That said, Considine has crafted a striking debut, with many smaller observational beats perhaps more impressive than the sum of the whole. It's a film that hinges on its performances, and the cast uniformly excel, but its Colman especially who's deserving of every accolade coming her way.

Tyrannosaur - 2011 - United Kingdom - 91 mins - Dir : Paddy Considine

Tyrannosaur will be on general release on October 7th 

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