Intense, harrowing, uncomfortable, shocking, brutal and unflinching.
Those are just some of the words that first come to mind when you put on Tyrannosaur. Highly acclaimed and award-winning – it has been nominated for nearly 50 awards and has won almost half of them, although it has been shockingly unacknowledged by the Oscars (who chose instead to nominate films like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) – this is the theatrical directorial debut of actor/writer/director Paddy Considine, who provides a painfully bleak but not-quite-without-hope look at the extreme end of working class life on a Council Estate and the fractured, abusive and abused lives of the people living therein.
The story follows the character of Joseph, a middle-aged man with a volatile temper, who takes out his anger on anyone – or, indeed, anything – that is within his sight. It’s uncontrollable rage, arguably pure psychosis, and whilst he takes no sadistic pleasure from what he does – and is veritably regretful over some of his actions – he neither appears capable of being stopped, nor does he have any motivation to change his ways. We don’t know what brought him to this state, and certainly have no idea how he will ever be able to get out of it, as, at the rate he’s going, the only end he’s looking at is the end of a sharp knife, either in the dark alleys of his run-down council estate residence, or in prison for the unquestionably illegal behaviour that he perpetuates on a daily basis. He needs help.
One day he stumbles into a charity shop run by Hannah, a middle-aged God-fearing Christian who initially chooses to just pray for him. Disdained by her behaviour and abusive towards her middle-class situ in life, he swears and shouts about how she has no idea what life is like on the Estate and how she has no place being there, even going so far as to question her marriage and her very faith. It turns out, however, that Hannah has her own issues, stemming from her own troubled relationship and pent-up, repressed existence, and that she has more in common with Joseph than either of them expected.
Tyrannosaur is a dark and harrowing piece of gritty urban filmmaking that has quite appropriately been compared to Gary Oldman’s tour de force directorial debut Nil By Mouth, not least in terms of its upsetting content, but also in respect of the powerful performances from the two leads.
Peter Mullan (Children of Men, Braveheart, and writer/director of the acclaimed NEDS) plays Joseph or rather, I should say, becomes Joseph, as there is simply nothing left of Mullan on-screen except for this vicious animal who appears, on the face of things, to have lost almost all of his humanity. It’s without a doubt one of the best performances of 2011 (another ridiculous Oscar omission), a daring piece of unflinching brutality which is made great not because of the frequent explosions of shock violence which he brings to bear, but because of the way in which he slowly chips away at this character to make him, if still far from likeable, then certainly somewhat sympathetic. You don’t ever feel like he has any true control over his actions, so when he starts to attempt to control them, you are right there beside him hoping that it will last more than a day... more than an hour.
When all is said and done his character makes no apologies for being the way that he is, and, as we realise over the course of the film, is often quite lucidly aware of his actions – albeit in hindsight – but the haunting truth is that he perceives himself to be an animal, and is himself unaware of any remaining humanity within his soul, even though, very occasionally, there is evidence of such. Indeed it is never more evident than in his father/son-like interaction with a young boy who lives opposite his house. In a world filler with such utter horror, this young boy; his playing in the street; his cherished doll; and the simple picture he draws of himself and Joseph marks the one bright thing - like a beacon of light in a sea of hopelessness - in the entire film. The fact that these two individuals instinctively want to protect each other is perhaps the only chink in Joseph's brutal, short-tempered armour. Their story, whilst not the main focus of the drama, is no less compelling because, if anything, the boy - due to his age - is just as trapped in this world as Joseph is.
Of course Olivia Colman (Hot Fuzz, Peep Show, Green Wing) is the other key main player. In a role that is starkly different from her comedic background, she brings Hannah to life as far more than just another clichéd goody-goody God-fearing Christian. Indeed it’s her faith that has shackled her to her own monster of sorts, in an unhappy, unhealthy situation that is, in some ways, arguably much worse than Joseph’s. Joseph may have been through hell but Hannah is still going through it, and Colman is absolutely astounding as the wife pushed way beyond the limits of any human being. From the horrific moments of violence to the disgusting incidents of abuse, it’s perhaps the quieter scenes, where she feigns still loving her husband, that prove the most striking because of how gritty, raw and realistic they are... well, those scenes and, of course, the singular breakdown moment where neither Joseph, nor us as the audience, have any idea how to react but to stand back in shock. Why she was denied any recognition is beyond me.
Eddie Marsan (Sherlock Holmes, London Boulevard, The New World) offers solid support as her husband, although the less said about his character, the better; suffice to say, it’s not a role that he’s unfamiliar with.
Paddy Considine is also no stranger to this kind of gritty subject-matter. He’s worked closely with Shane Meadows on a number of equally dour productions with similar bleak-but-powerful themes, not least the unforgettably powerful Dead Man’s Shoes (which he co-wrote), and he’s also worked with several of the cast members from Tyrannosaur before (including Peter Mullan and Eddie Marsden) on the superior UK TV mini-series Red Riding.
Tyrannosaur is based on Considine’s debut directorial effort, a short film entitled Dog Altogether, which also starred Mullan and Colman in their same respective roles, and Considine expanded this original – also award-winning – short into a full feature, writing and directing it for the Big Screen. Whilst some might immediately wonder whether this is something of an autobiographical effort – there are many indications which suggest an intimate knowledge of the subject-matter – it would appear that the characters and story that he has fashioned is merely based on his experiences on a Council Estate as a youth, and not on personal connections. The film, however, is still somewhat pointedly dedicated to his late mother.
In any event, Considine has crafted one of the most powerful movies that I have come across recently, and it makes for a fantastic debut feature. It’s a small-scale production, with a tiny budget (£750,000!) and a very limited story – indeed the entire conclusion is summed up in a very cleverly-used montage sequence that plays out whilst a letter that is being written is narrated to the audience – and yet it thrives on pure, raw emotion and an unrestrained, unfettered look at urban life.
In the same vein as Mike Leigh’s Naked, or the aforementioned Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth, and even, in some respects the outstanding Andrea Arnold film Fish Tank, this is kitchen-sink realism crossed at its best (or worst, depending on your perspective). It’s a poignant, painful production; compelling from start to finish; bleak and depressing for the most part; frequently shocking; and yet somehow, at the core of it, it appears to still have just enough heart and soul to make you care about the characters and their plight. If anything, it’s only that montage ending – the only point of the movie which, rather strangely, veers away from plausibility (at least legally) – which feels out of place and, even then, Considine somehow manages to elicit such strong performances from his leads that we follow him, unquestioningly, right through to the final shot.
If it’s passed you by, and you have the stomach to survive it, then I strongly recommend you give Tyrannosaur a chance. It’ll likely blow most of the Oscar candidates out of the water in terms of script and performances, and provide a far more memorable, worthy watch. Arguably the Best British film of 2011.