Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The War Zone (1999)

The War Zone is about a London family consisting of a pregnant mother, her husband and their two teenage children Tom and Jessie, who relocate to rural Devon.  Tom is bored and lonely but nothing can prepare him from the revelatory secret relationship he uncovers between his father and sister. Isolated and confused, he slowly becomes determined to tell the horrible truth. 

Tim Roth's sole directorial effort (to date) bears all the indelible hallmarks of a director who captured one of Roth's finest and first performances in the TV play Made In Britain; Alan Clarke. As well as the technical influence and the same courage to explore dark subject matter, Roth also takes Clarke's belief in nurturing and in turn capturing totally naturalistic and authentic turns from inexperienced young actors, in this case Freddie Cunliffe (no relation to me!) and Lara Belmont who are both rare finds. 

The young actors are placed head first opposite two heavyweights, Ray Winstone and Tilda Swinton as their parents, and it is to their credit that they hold their own. For Winstone, this is an incredibly dark role - perhaps even darker than his turn in actor turned director Gary Oldman's film Nil By Mouth - but he pulls it off brilliantly by clearly having great trust in Roth, despite his very understandable reservations regarding the nature of the storyline which he is on record as discussing claiming "the little girl (ie Lara, the novice 17 year old actress making her debut) looked after me". This role, like so many of Winstone's other performances in the 90s, is light years ahead of the 'geeza' stereotype he has all too comfortably settled into in recent years. I defy anyone to watch this and say he cannot act or that he always plays the same part.

Roth takes Alexander Stuart's screenplay (adapted from his own novel) and presents a harrowing and deeply unpleasant tale told in both bleak and oblique, elusive terms, refusing to provide answers to the painful, abusive and disturbing situation because he knows full well that somethings cannot ever be explained. It's a bold gamble, especially for one's first movie in the chair, and - despite winning several prestigious awards - it was enough to stymie many critics who found it abhorrent, perhaps having expected a more simplistic morality tale than what is ultimately on offer. Their reviews damaged the film's reputation at the box office and as a result, Roth hasn't made a film of his own since. Shame on them say I. However, to his credit, Roth appeared in person before audiences at several festivals to discuss and defend his film which is where this telling exchange comes from;

Audience member (who worked with sexual abuse survivors): "What made you interested in tackling such a really difficult subject?"

Tim Roth: "Well, all I can say to you is draw your own conclusions..."

Audience member: "I've a feeling I might know..."

Roth: "OK, gotcha babe"

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