Critical Writings -> Academic Journals -> Newpaper Articles & Reviews > Film

Articles and Reviews: FILM

The War Zone

Directed by Tim Roth

Acclaimed English actor Tim Roth’s directorial debut feature The War Zone got a pre-release screening on August 18 last at the IFC, as part of the Film Institute of Ireland/The Irish Times Public Interview series, and Roth, accompanied by the film’s lead actor Ray Winstone, chatted with Irish Times film critic Michael Dwyer afterwards. Producer Sarah Radclyffe was also in attendance.
Adapted by Alexander Stuart from his own 1989 novel (which I should admit from the outset to not having read), the film deals graphically and uncompromisingly with the harrowing subject of incest and parental abuse of children. It thus joins a number of recent movies which concern themselves, however tangentially, with this emotionally charged issue, including November Afternoon, Priest, Festen and Happiness. However, while there is much to admire here, namely Seamus McGarvey’s superb cinematography, with rigorously composed, carefully lit long takes of dark interiors and desolate landscapes, and the understated yet intense performances Roth has coaxed from all his central players, this is ultimately an ill-conceived and unsatisfying film.




The story is seen from the point of view of Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), a 15-year-old who resents his family’s move from London to Devon. Being uprooted from his friends has exacerbated Tom’s feelings, common in adolescence, of estrangement from family. He observes with equal measures of curiosity and anxiety his pregnant mum (Tilda Swinton), his quiet-around-the-house Dad (Winstone), and his attractive sister Jessie (Lara Belmont), three years his senior. Lonely, alienated and bored, Tom is an alert and perceptive youngster who soon detects a terrible festering secret that binds his father and Jessie together. When Jessie repeatedly denies Tom’s allegations, he follows her and their father to a secluded coastal bunker, and witnesses an explicit scene of incestuous anal intercourse.
My unease with the film stems from the fact that none of the family members is given any interior psychology, and they remain bereft throughout of any coherent social context. We are told almost nothing of their backgrounds, of what has brought them to the present situation. While Beckettian abstraction or Brechtian expressionism has its place in cinema, and as much can be revealed by leaving spaces and silences for the audience to fill in, or place itself in, as by more realistic exposition, if one is taking as well-defined and shocking a phenomenon as incest as one’s sole or central theme, and has gone to the trouble of particularising it in an specific family, then the viewer simply has to know more about them. There is no sense here of either the family dynamics or the social concern which underpin the aforementioned Festen, for example, where the patriarch’s abuse of his son and daughter, and his affection for the most boorish and racist of his offspring, links into a broader condemnation of how he has succeeded in business in the greater bourgeois society he is a part of and which celebrates him, indeed how the very impulse towards the behaviour he indulges in in his personal life may well have its corollary and been an asset, and is certainly given a more socially acceptable outlet, as part of the worldview which sponsors his role in the public sphere. If you see your more sensitive and vulnerable children as mere vessels for your own self-gratification, how will you treat your employees, or those you have business dealings with? Also, his wife’s knowledge of, consent to, and subsequent repudiation of his activity is made abundantly clear.
If I was an actor in The War Zone, searching for my character’s motivation, I’d feel very under-equipped for the task in hand. Winstone’s promotional spiel for the publicity circuit, first heard by this writer at the IFC and then again when it was repeated almost verbatim the following week on Channel 4’s coverage of the Edinburgh Festival, defends the film, and the bunker scene especially, by arguing, “That’s what these fuckers do.” Fair enough, but that begs the obvious question, as does the entire movie, “Why do they do what they do?” And there’s more: what’s Dad’s job? (the film distributor’s bumf calls the family middle-class, while a review by Emanuel Levy in Variety clearly thinks it is working-class); why have they relocated from London to rural, isolated Devon?; how much does Mum know?; why is 18-year-old Jessie so compliant and conspiratorial with her father?; what is the nature and significance of Jessie’s lesbian relationship with her friend Lucy, and how and when did it come about?; why does she instigate a sexual encounter between Tom and Lucy?; what, if any, is the significance of the car crash at the beginning of the film, when Mum is in labour and being driven to hospital (an incident which has the unfortunate consequence of making one suppose publicity stills of battered and bandaged female faces are as a result of beating rather than the accident)?; and was Dad at his baby girl, or did she just start vaginal haemorrhaging anyway? Too many questions, and not enough answers. All takes place in hugger-mugger, is hinted at, but left undeveloped and unexplored.
But what compounds these criticisms is the air of self-righteous, self-congratulatory loviedom that surrounded the IFC interview. Granted, Roth may have been nervous, an actor without a mask, but he came across as offering himself as the only hope left for a radical British cinema, taking some unsubstantiated and gratuitous pot-shots along the way at actor/directors he has previously worked with (Allen, Tarentino). Although careful to distance himself from any comparison with Gary Oldman’s success with Nil By Mouth (“That’s just criticism, and that’s cheap.”), Oldman and Roth are presenting themselves, or being presented, as the only alternative to the ubiquitous Merchant Ivory heritage movies, or to the cosiness of The Full Monty or Notting Hill. But it should be remembered that these need not necessarily be the only games in town.
The bottom line is that The War Zone would have had a lot more difficulty getting made if someone with Roth’s clout had not come on board (Nick Roeg had already passed on it, for unspecified reasons, as had a pre-Trainspotting Danny Boyle), but that still doesn’t mean that he was the best man for such a delicate job. And although he is not the most articulate individual in the world, these public interviews are not going to have any real value unless they probe and prod a little deeper than the average promo tool. As it was, Roth’s behaviour on the night in question was little more than that of a dial-a-quote rebel. We are, in effect, being asked to choose between those with style and those with attitude. But what we really need are articulate rebels.
Roth has made an ‘actorly’ movie, and the cast must have been exhilarated by working on such a challenging but rewarding task. But the end result, despite its subject matter and explicitness, is nevertheless without much substance at its core. Any film concerning itself with incest is going to create controversy, or at least attract attention. While it would be egregiously cynical to question Tim Roth’s bona fides in undertaking the project, something as serious and devastating and, let’s face it, as common as incest deserves a much more in depth examination and dramatisation than these alternative lovies have shown themselves capable of giving it.

First published in Film Ireland









Critical Writings

Travel Writings