British actor Tim Roth proves he is also a gifted director with “The War Zone,” an intimate, sharply observed drama about a working-class family torn apart by incest and parental abuse. One of the highlights of the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, this meticulously staged, splendidly acted picture is uncompromisingly depressing (as it should be), but it’s so gripping, so psychologically true, that it deserves to be seen on the bigscreen after traveling the global festival road.
Pic, inevitably, will draw comparisons to “Nil by Mouth” — not only because both films were directed by talented thesps (“Nil” by Gary Oldman) and feature Ray Winstone as an abusive father, but also both were inspired by the gritty work of Ken Loach, although they lack that filmmaker’s overt class politics. In its restraint and discipline, Roth’s film is superior to Oldman’s, avoiding the in-your-face scenes of heartbreak that marked “Nil,” which was a commercial failure.
Loach may be the model, but Roth understands better than the veteran helmer the fine line between kitchen-sink realism and the more subtle dictates of the bigscreen. In this respect, “The War Zone” may be more inspired by the work of Alan Clarke, a British helmer known mostly for his TV work. Focusing on the underprivileged, Clarke made discomforting films whose emotional power depended on attention to detail and cumulative effect. Similarly, every scene in Roth’s logically constructed film comments directly on the previous one and logically leads to the next scene.
Alexander Stuart’s screenplay, based on his controversial 1989 novel, is from the point of view of Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), a 15-year-old who resents his family’s relocation from London to the rural, isolated region of Devon. Being uprooted from his friends has exacerbated Tom’s growing pains. Considering the popularity of the coming-of-age genre, it’s a tribute to Roth that he treats Tom’s maturation and sexual awakening with such a delicate, cliche-free touch.
Tom observes with equal measures of curiosity and anxiety his pregnant mum (Tilda Swinton), his vocal, abusive dad (Winstone) and, particularly, his attractive sister, Jessie (the beautiful Lara Belmont), who’s only three years older but already has blossomed into an alluring young woman. The siblings are close enough for Tom to burst into Jessie’s room and engage in a tete-a-tete while she’s lying naked in bed.
Lonely, alienated and bored, Tom is an alert and perceptive youngster who soon detects a terrible secret that “binds” his father and Jessie. When Jessie repeatedly denies Tom’s allegations, he follows her and his father to a secluded cabin, where the latter brutally forces himself upon Jessie in a harrowing scene.
Since the audience is ahead of the game, Roth’s ability to sustain tension throughout the story is all the more impressive. Understanding the familiar aspects of the yarn — including its progression toward predictable tragedy — Roth puts all his directorial energy into detailed portraits of his four protagonists. Result is a superior, brooding family drama worthy of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams — one in which the most effective moments are silent, with meaningful interactions expressed in gestures and looks.
Though essentially a chamber piece, “The War Zone” contains secondary characters that enrich the story.
Unlike most actors-turned-directors, Roth doesn’t commit the mistake of letting his cast indulge in big, theatrical scenes with long monologues and mega-close-ups. Under his guidance, Seamus McGarvey’s luminous camera observes the family from the right distance — neither too close nor too detached — allowing viewers to watch and make up their own minds about the tangled web of relationships.
As discerning as Roth’s helming is, pic’s overall impact largely depends on its superb ensemble and perfect casting. Special kudos go to newcomers Cunliffe and Belmont, who, despite a lack of acting experience, render multi-shaded performances that always ring true. Winstone is terrifyingly explosive as Dad. In a quiet role that’s a departure from her previous work, Swinton shines as Mum, a woman so preoccupied with her baby that she’s unaware of the crises tearing apart her family.
Boasting first-rate production values and resplendent from first frame to last, “The War Zone” is a gem of a movie.