Other Dashiell Writings:
- August/September 1999
THE WAR ZONE is directed by Tim Roth, adapted from a book by Alexander Stuart. It's about a family that has recently moved from London to the countryside in Devon. Mum (Tilda Swinton) has just had a new baby. The gruff but personable Dad (Ray Winstone) seems to be on the phone trying to make business deals half the time. Their teenage children Jessie (Lara Belmont) and Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) are rather quiet, withdrawn, even sullen. Tom especially seems lost in his own world. But he receives a terrible jolt when he accidentally witnesses a family secret - Dad is having sex with Jessie.
Roth's narrative strategy is interesting. He will leave the camera in a certain room when people are talking or doing things in another. He often focuses on the spaces between the actors rather than using the traditional establishing shot to close-up dynamic. In his treatment of the material he is brutally direct. In films that deal with the emotionally charged subject of incest, the tendency to dramatize and create distance is common. Roth completely resists that tendency, and the result is a powerful but gruelling experience. His commitment is to reproduce as closely as possible the feeling of being in this sick family. The visual set-up is smothering, claustrophobic. The acting is very contained, with unexpressed feelings having a more powerful effect than anything said.
Winstone seems to have carved a niche for himself as the bad guy in English cinema. He does good work here. Cunliffe has the acne-scarred, shut-down look of a very depressed fifteen-year-old. His performance seems at times almost too inexpressive, but his scenes with the intense Belmont are amazing. The strange love-hate relationship between brother and sister is at the center of the film.
have to say that Roth has gone about as far as a director can go into
the heart of familial darkness. I can't say I enjoyed The War Zone,
but its effect will stay with me a long time.
Scottish actor Peter Mullan has written and directed ORPHANS, another film about a sick family. Three brothers and a sister gather for their mother's funeral in Glasgow. Circumstances separate them the night before the service. Eldest brother Thomas (Gary Lewis), the supposedly responsible one, is actually a martyr who is always carrying the family's guilt on his shoulders. He stays in the church all night with the coffin.Michael (Douglas Henshall), the rueful family scapegoat, gets stabbed in a bar fight, but instead of going to the hospital, wanders through town in the rain all night bleeding to death while planning to blame his wound on a work injury and thus gain compensation. Wheelchair-bound Sheila (Rosemarie Stephenson) goes off on her own in an act of defiance and gets lost and eventually befriended by a little girl. Youngest brother John (Stephen McCole) goes on a mission to find a gun so he can kill the guy who stabbed Michael, hooking up with a sociopath (the scary Frank Gallagher) who takes him to all the wrong places. Each sibling deals with grief by avoiding it in crazy, irresponsible ways. Mullan's approach is refreshing - instead of the nobility of suffering he prefers to show its foolishness, which is often quite funny but also more human.
The plot takes a few turns that seem in the realm of the fantastic, a kind of Scottish magical realism. Afterwards (or even during) you may realize that things like this wouldn't really happen - but Mullan makes them convincing anyway because they reflect the characters' extreme, fractured states of mind. For all of them, there is something dangerous about turning their backs on grief, and that inner danger is reflected in wild, absurd and violent outward events. After a hellish night, the calm after the storm is well earned.
It's a freshman effort for sure, with the rough edges and occasional missteps of a first film. But it's interesting and funny and passionate, and the actors are fine, especially Henshall, the film's emotional center. The distributors have seen fit to put English subtitles on the film so that we can understand the Scottish accents. I thought it was unnecessary. Unlike the dialogue in Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe (in which Mullan was excellent in the title role), the talk in Orphans seemed for the most part completely understandable to my American ears.
Conversation in a video store. Peter Brooks' Marat/Sade is playing on the store's TV screen. (Yeah, it's not your typical video outlet.) A young man next in at the register asks, "What movie is this?"
"It's called Marat/Sade," I say.
"Well, thanks for telling me," he says. "Now I can avoid ever renting it. I hate that kind of pretentious, arty crap. Give me something with a high body count. Heh-heh."
"Actually Marat/Sade has a fairly high body count."
He peers at me with a look that says, Oh you're one of them. And then looks away.
This is a good illustration of the way the word "pretentious" is most often used these days. It has come to mean artistic, intellectual, anything outside of the "entertainment" parameter. And there's almost always that hint of fear. In other words, what I don't understand I will choose to hate. Of course, many of you cinepals may not like Marat/Sade at all, but I'm sure you'll give me a reasoned argument for your dislike, something we can discuss, rather than just dismissing it as "pretentious" or "arty."