Intense British actors have a tendency towards directing intense British films. Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth from 1997 should need no introduction. In the midst of high-profile roles for Luc Besson and potential Hollywood blockbusters, he returned to his working class South London roots for a stark portrait of various types of abuse: domestic violence, drugs and alcohol. Kathy Burke earned herself a Best Actress award at Cannes as a result, Ray Winstone turned in arguably his finest ever performance and Oldman, as writer, director and producer, garnered massive praise. Two years later and his occasional co-star Tim Roth also utilised Winstone for his feature debut, The War Zone. This was another tale of abuse, equally stark, centring on incest and sexual violence. It was based on Alexander Stuart’s novel, adapted by the author himself, but came with certain autobiographical resonances for Roth. The same was also true of Nil by Mouth, or indeed the 2009 directorial debut of Samantha Morton, The Unloved. To this list we can now add Paddy Considine and Tyrannosaur, a film dedicated to his mother Pauline and, though a work of fiction, one that draws on his recollections of his father and other memories from his formative years.
Tyrannosaur began life as a short film. Dog Altogether was co-produced by Warp Films and released in 2007 whereupon it immediately picked up various festival prizes and would go to win the BAFTA for Best Short. Barely 16 minutes in length, the film presented us with a few scenes from the life of Joseph, played by Peter Mullen. Little concrete information was revealed about this man but we were able to sample his ill-focused aggression and the sense of loss that pervades his everyday existence. The opening minutes had him lash out at his dog - fatally, it will turn out - in a scene of shocking cruelty. Yet Considine asked us not to dismiss this man, but rather to understand him, even if that goes against our natural impulses. That outbreak of violence wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last. It was a symptom of a man’s internal suffering and it made for some painfully raw cinema. The only respite came towards the end following a breakdown in a Christian charity shop after yet another alcohol-fuelled lashing out. The woman behind the counter, played by Olivia Colman, comforts and prays for Joseph; it’s the only sign of feeling we see that has headed in his direction.
Though a self-contained and satisfying work in its own right, Dog Altogether also works as an extended teaser trailer for Tyrannosaur. Its entirety becomes the feature’s opening scenes. Those black spaces it had asked the audience to fill in - the circumstances of Joseph’s anger and his sense of loss; the background of this woman he has come into contact with; where the characters go from here - became Considine’s initial questions when writing the new script. As such Dog Altogether, in retrospect, plays out like a test piece. It proved that not only that Considine was a worthwhile prospect as a writer and director, but more importantly it proved that these characters were worth pursuing. This kind of approach has become increasingly commonplace for Warp Films. Chris Morris’ Four Lions was preceded by an unrelated short (My Wrongs #8245-8249 & 117 which, coincidentally, starred Considine), whilst Matthew Holness’ recent miniature A Gun for George will soon be expanded to feature length. And it appears to be working just fine: the quality to date of both the small-scale ventures and the much larger productions has been almost uniformly excellent.
The new Blu-ray and DVD editions of Tyrannosaur include Dog Altogether amongst their extras. Watching the two films in such close proximity is an interesting exercise: the tweaks and omissions become more immediately apparent, as does the dramatic focus of each scene. If anything those opening minutes of Tyrannosaur feel less immediate (and less raw) than their original counterpart. In part this may be down to familiarity and perhaps a slight amount of distraction as we consider those various minor changes or note the differing performances amongst the alternative supporting cast. (Amazingly, the ill-fated dog is the very same one from four years previous.) There’s also an additional cinematic edge that comes with the newfound ’scope framing and a more obviously ‘stylish’ edit that initially favours a quicker cut and jumping across timeframes; the effect is that of an additional gloss. Furthermore, despite the roughly equivalent runtimes, these initial scenes feel somewhat pacier in Tyrannosaur. Consequently their impact is a little curtailed.
Initial misgivings soon give way to the realisation that Considine is playing the long game. This time around he has 90 minutes at his disposal rather than a mere 16 and that understandably curtails the need for any instant emotions. The scene in which Joseph kicks out at his dog maintains all of its potency, but to start full throttle would surely create a sense of misbalance. That initial moment of violence, its pointlessness and its cruelty, is enough. The tone has been established, the threat of further violence is always there, and that unpredictable, aggressive side of Joseph has been made clear. We know we’ll see it again, we just don’t know when. We also know that Considine will be providing us with at least some glimpses into Joseph’s past and perhaps even some reasoning for his behaviour. As such we don’t quite feel the same urge to read as much into this character as we do with Dog Altogether. There every second counted, but here we are allowed a more leisurely insight into the man. That raw energy isn’t necessary anymore.
Similarly, Olivia Colman’s charity shop worker Hannah (she was named Anita on the credits to Dog Altogether) no longer becomes quite the source of speculation. In the short all we had to go on was her politeness, her posh accent and her religion - everything else was filled in by the viewer. Indeed, Considine plays on exactly this by having the first non-Dog Altogether scene of Tyrannosaur revolve around Joseph’s preconceptions of her. He resents what he perceives as her middle class happiness: married, nice house, comfortable, working in a job for which she doesn’t paid nor does she need to, a “goody-goody”. It’s a horrible scene to watch, especially as Joseph can be extremely eloquent when he’s in an embittered frame of mind. The resentment feeds his words; he doesn’t need to physically lash out as he’s done to his dog or a group of youths around a pub pool table, but the effect is same. His words hurt, but not in the manner we quite expect.
We quickly learn that Hannah’s existence is far from happy too. Despite the appearances of a comfortable middle class life, with its well-kept household in a nice area of town and an estate agent husband, these glossy surfaces mask some horrific abuse. The first instance we witness - which I won’t divulge - is an incredibly vile act of dominance perpetrated by the husband (played Eddie Marsan). And there is more to come. Once again it creates a permanent sense of threat; just as we never know when Joseph will next lash out, so too we never when Hannah will next be on the receiving end of a beating or worse. In some respects the husband and Joseph are quite similar as both have descended into someone lesser than their former selves: “You remember the real me,” becomes part of the excuse to Hannah as he apologises for yet another hideous bout of abuse. These are men whose demons have become physically manifest, whether that means taking it out on the wife for imagined infidelities or manically talking to yourself in a pub corner as past events are replayed again and again in the mind.
The husband remains a mostly unknown presence. What we see comes solely through the eyes of Hannah or is the result of Marsan’s excellent performance. The focus is squarely on her, on Joseph, and this tentative friendship/relationship that builds between them. The husband’s violence is always in our minds, as too is Joseph’s, but Tyrannosaur is not a film about violence. Rather it’s the thing that unites these two disparate people. He has it within him. She must face its consequences on an almost daily basis. And so, despite their differing backgrounds, upbringings and religion, they have this central point of contact that at least allows for some mutual understanding. Moreover, because this isn’t a film about violence it also isn’t a film about retribution or revenge or any such narrative-driven concepts. Considine’s tale is fuelled by its emotions and finding the truth in its situations. Given the vague autobiographical touches he has hinted at in interviews and on this disc’s commentary, it is also tempting to suggest that this search for the emotional truth relates to his own past and is as much an attempt on his own behalf at coming to terms with his own memories of growing up. How it all relates - and how explicit or implicit any connections may be - is besides the point. It only matters that it means something to Considine and that this significance translates itself onto the screen.
If this pursuit occasional prompts a few rough edges and a little bit of messiness then so be it. Tyrannosaur isn’t perfect or pristine nor should it be. Indeed, the ragged qualities are surely a reflection of the characters it has chosen to spend time with. Their lives don’t come with easy options and tidy conclusions. They don’t balance the laughter with the tears so as to make their existence more palatable to those of us looking in. Importantly they are real and this is as much down to Considine’s control as both a writer and a director as it is the central performers. Of course, both Mullen and, especially, Colman have been lavished with praise for their work on Tyrannosaur and deservedly so. In fact there’s little point in me reiterating once again just how good they are or how much of a travesty it is that they’ve not even been nominated for some of this year’s key awards. (The Special Jury prize for Mullen and Colman this time last year at the Sundance Film Festival should have been the opening of floodgates, but alas no.) Suffice to say, both are outstanding and able to produce the most devastating of moments from the tiniest of gestures. The scene in which Hannah appears to comfort her sobbing husband conveys so much from just a few words and a few choice glances: within no more than ten or so seconds you get to sense the past ten or so years of her life. It’s a remarkable moment and, for me, the most lasting image of the entire film. If you’ve already seen Tyrannosaur, you’ll know it’s far from the only one.
Tyrannosaur is released this coming Monday (February 6th) onto separate DVD and Blu-ray editions by StudioCanal. A Blu-ray disc was supplied for review purposes and so it is this release under consideration here. The presentation is mostly fine with a few niggling issues. It maintains the original aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 and utilises an AVC encode in 1080p. Clarity is superb throughout - every unflattering detail of Mullen’s face is there to be made out. As expected there are also no problems relating to print damage; this is as pristine as a 2011 production should be. However, there is some prominent colour banding that can prove distracting. Admittedly Considine’s camera is generally poised and makes use of little movement (no handheld ‘grittiness’ here) so this isn’t as problematic as it could have been, but it does indicate that StudioCanal are not presenting us with an optimal transfer. The soundtrack fares better, with both LPCM stereo and DTS-HD 5.1 options available. Tyrannosaur is dialogue-heavy with the odd acoustic number playing over scenes and as such either choice has little to contend or find difficulty with. The result is as crisp as we would hope for with every word perfectly clear. The songs are also well balanced, never once threatening to become overbearing either to the dialogue or the overall mood. If required, optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing are also available.
The special features are generally worthwhile, especially those with Considine’s direct input. Dog Altogether, the original short discussed at the start of this reviews, puts in a welcome appearance. There’s no additional commentary for it, but the director has recorded a track for both the main feature and a selection of deleted scenes. (He’s accompanied by producer Diarmid Scrimshaw for Tyrannosaur’s commentary, although this is simply because Considine needed someone sitting in the booth with him; though mic’ed up he says very little.) In both cases Considine is wonderfully frank and candid about the whole process, whether it be the reasons for abandoning a particular scene for the final cut or making reference to his father and the influence he had on the film overall. Importantly Considine shows how much making Tyrannosaur meant to him. There’s a genuine passion as he talks (and he really does talk, barely letting up for the entire 92 minutes) and, as such, this is one of the best filmmaker commentaries I’ve listened to in a long time. (Stick around to the end and he’ll also thank you for listening for so long!) Rounding off the package we also find a stills gallery of production stills and behind the scenes shots, plus the theatrical trailer. The disc is also said to come with a booklet, though one was not supplied for review purposes and as such I cannot comment on its content or quality.