Made in Britain: Tyrannosaur (2011)
As a rule of thumb, this one is hard to beat. If The Guardian, and Peter Bradshaw in particular, are showing undue amounts of love to a British film, then there’s a very high chance that the film is one (or even several) of the following things: independent, miserable, dealing with class issues, boring, pretentious, or directed by or starring someone they approve of. So, Tyrannosaur, Paddy Considine’s debut feature, receive a quite unprecedented cuddle from them, and using the above formula, it was pretty simple to work out that what we have here is not the British version of Avatar. Yes, that’s right, I’m back in working class miseryland, and I’m all strapped in for a fun evening of urban unhappiness, domestic violence and probable alcohol abuse.
Contains domestic violence and spoilers below.
Actually, I’m being unfair here, because what Tyrannosaur is, as well as being a sink estate working class kitchen sink film that probably is now in the Oxford English Dictionary as the quintessential example of misery porn, is superb. Telling the story of Joseph (Peter Mullan), a very bad man trying to reform himself, Tyrannosaur follows his life around the estate and his blossoming relationship with Hannah (Olivia Colman), a brutally abused wife, who suffers daily at the hands of her pillar-of-the-church husband James (Eddie Marsan). This man is, frankly, a real bastard, a despicable hypocrite of the vilest sort that is prepared to be lauded as a stalwart member of the community in public, but is a repellent rapist and wife beating shitweasel behind closed doors. Unfortunately for Hannah, Joseph is also an abusive bastard, but he’s trying to put his past behind him; to set foot on the straight and narrow and to hopefully reinvent himself as a functioning member of society.
I’m going to try to keep the spoilers to a minimum here, because this is an incredibly powerful film, and I saw it virtually unspoiled. However, it doesn’t take a genius to work out where this is heading, and I can’t really discuss it without revealing the big moment of the film. Apologies in advance, but there’s not a lot I can do.
Joseph is an interesting character. He’s a man on a tight leash, who regrets actions in his past, but by the same score cannot allow any interaction with other people lest he returns to his abusive ways. In his own words, her being around is “fucking his shit up”. He’s also, simultaneously, an emotional vampire, and his reason for latching on to Hannah is that he walked past her charity shop and she smiled, and just for a moment he wanted to be wrapped up in her warmth. He didn’t and this is important, want to be wrapped up in her life, but rather he wanted to leech the happiness, the implied human contact from her smile. Played with controlled aggression by Mullan, Joseph is a man to fear, a man that is literally one beer away from glassing someone. He stalks the screen, hunched over like a predatory beast, and every gesture and action speaks volumes of the simmering wrath contained within.
Hannah, on the other hand, is a lost cause. Her life is a cycle of terror and misery, and her daily toil in the charity shop allows her an outlet where she doesn’t have to live in horror. This is a frankly stupendous performance from Colman, being raw, visceral and strangely needy. Her Hannah draws the sympathy from the viewer without any effort at all: she’s a nice woman, the good Samaritan in the sea of scumbags. Her relationship with Mullan’s contained force of nature is strained, she doesn’t like him, particularly, but is willing to pray for him, and when forced to turn to Joseph for succor she only does it from pure desperation.
But why is Hannah so desperate? Well, Tyrannosaur is probably the finest example of Battered Wife Syndrome that I’ve ever seen on screen. Our first introduction to her husband and she’s feigning sleep while he’s pissing on her. Her life is a cycle of degradation and violence, and although she tries to verbally fight back, he’s a savage and vicious bully, a reprehensible piece of shit that is more than a physical match for her. He’s a sickening combination of cowardice and paranoia, and the public face shown masks one of British Cinema’s most revolting villains in a good while. Marsan’s performance is spot on, being a loathsome weasel and someone that you would never tire of punching.
This is unfathomably difficult to watch, and the key scene is roughly half way through. The tipping point is after the first beating that James dishes to Hannah. Her eye is blacked, but more importantly, she’s now terrified of going back to her own home. As a result, she goes out on the tiles, and drinks until she isn’t scared any more. Rescued by some strangers, who discover her lying on the street whispering “I’m not scared of you”, she’s returned to James’ less than careful hands. Once home, she faces him down, brilliantly proclaiming him as a “cowardly little cock”, she invites him to hit her, knowing, or rather believing, that if you face a bully down then they will back away.
For a while it looks like it has worked, she breaks away and is sitting on her bed laughing in a manner best described as utterly unhinged. It’s an unsettling little titter, a laugh that suggests the person is near breaking point, and a laugh lacking utterly in humour. When James appears next, what follows is both depressingly predictable and almost impossible to watch. He, inevitably, beats the shit out of her, and then savagely rapes her on the carpet. We next see her on Joseph’s doorstep pleading for help.
Tyrannosaur is an angry film. Considine said that although this is not what his upbringing consisted of, he has sourced his rage in events that he saw regularly on the estate he grew up on. It’s a harrowing experience, but you know that any film that opens with an old alcoholic kicking his pet dog to death is not going to be a whole barrel of laughs. Actually, I don’t fully believe Considine about this, I suspect that what he has done is condense 18 years worth of experience and cherry picked the worst events he saw. To be fair, several of the individual incidents in Tyrannosaur would make the front page of the Daily Mail nowadays (particularly the revolting dog scene at the end of the film), and I do understand what he’s driving at here.
Because Tyrannosaur is all about the rage, this is pure Vin Diesel in XXX shaking with impotent fury. Considine is judging the characters and the circumstances, but above all else he’s judging human nature. Everyone in Tyrannosaur is a damaged individual, everyone has personality flaws and, with the possible exception of Hannah, the propensity for cruelty. The Tyrannosaur of the title comes from the emotional abuse Joseph inflicted on his wife- she was an obese woman, and it’s what he called her in reference to Jurassic Park. This is the purpose of the rape scene in the film, it’s not lascivious, it’s relentlessly sordid, with little details encapsulating the fury held behind the camera. Whether or not it’s needed in such graphic detail is open for debate, and I would argue, personally, that it isn’t, but Considine is intentionally inflaming the audience by putting an act of sordid brutality on the screen in the most no-holds barred fashion.
But, as is always the way with these Kitchen Sink dramas, there must at least be the possibility of escape and redemption, and Tyrannosaur is no exception. Joseph is trying to reform himself, and he realises that he’s a “bad man”. Hannah represents the chance to prove that he isn’t irredeemable, that he can move forward with his life as a better person. The fact that practically his last action in the film is a nasty piece of revenge is neither here nor there, because there’s a sense of righteousness to what he does, and the thug’s impotent bare-chested Neanderthal challenge to Joseph in many ways encapsulates the film. This is what Considine is doing, he’s standing there with his shirt off screaming “COME ON THEN” at the world, and although he’s not going to win, he’ll at least go down swinging.
However, before that, the characters have to hit rock bottom, and Tyrannosaur doesn’t mess around here. The curtain is ripped back, just as Hannah seems to be recovering, to reveal the disaster lurking in the background. Her dialogue here is a touch unnecessary as we don’t, and Joseph doesn’t, need to hear about the brutality she has endured, the cruelty that has been inflicted on her. Simply because we’ve already seen it, and as well performed as the dialogue is, her litany of horror perhaps overdoes things, because a picture tells a thousand words, and this is one hell of a picture.
The film closes with the genuine scene of redemption. Hannah, despite circumstances, looks the best and the happiest that she has been in the film, and this is the only time that Joseph cracks a smile without the aid of alcohol. There’s an uplifting sense of release to the final scene (factually bullshit though it may be) and that it’s followed on from the most emotionally bleak moment in the film, when Joseph utters “You’re fucked girl”, allows the audience the chance of cathartic release that Tyrannosaur was just begging for. Visually, actually, it lifts almost wholesale from the finale from Requiem for a Dream, except with a different punchline, and it’s almost as devastating here as it was there.
Overall, this is a great film. I’m approving it, but I’m not sure I recommend it. Tyrannosaur is certainly not easy viewing, and it isn’t for the faint of heart. A savage and uncompromising film where the naked wrath simply drips off the screen, Tyrannosaur is one of the most effective pieces of urban misery that we’ve produced since probably This is England. While it doesn’t talk to me the way that film does, it remains a rage-driven and powerful debut feature that ranks in the same league as Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth, Williams’ London to Brighton and, yes, Meadows’ This is England.
That’s enough misery in this series for a while, so I’m going to find something that will warm the cockles of my black heart instead for a bit of light relief. Possibly involving midgets.
Until next time,