Other people’s lives. You have no idea what it’s really like. It’s interesting that it’s this theme, and no doubt some degree of personal experience, that has informed the work of quite a number of new young-not-so-young British filmmakers. Yes, there’s a common theme that life in a working class council housing estate in the UK is unremittingly miserable – which is no surprise to anyone – but there’s something more interesting in the fact that some of the most talented actors of our generation have come from that kind of background, and have perhaps found in that life the drive they need to escape it that they express so powerfully in acting roles. Not entirely satisfied with just being an actor, Paddy Considine, like Peter Mullan before him (most recently and viscerally in NEDS) and Samantha Morton (in a rather more elegiac mode, but no less hard-hitting in The Unloved), have each nonetheless felt the need to write and direct their own films.
While the drive is clearly a personal one, the subjects related to personal experience, there’s a feeling nonetheless that each of them are striving to find a personal means of expression that gets to the heart of the subject much more realistically and less conventionally cinematic than the form of so-called social realism that that has evolved through the works of some of the most successful British film directors working in this field. If Mullan is proving to be capable of bringing a much more probing human dimension to the working class subject matter of Ken Loach, and Morton a impressionistic quality in the style of Terence Davies without the poetic beautification, Paddy Considine, in his debut feature Tyrannosaur, seems to be intent on extending and even breaking down the Mike Leigh façade of keeping up appearances that lies behind cozy English gentility and middle-class aspirations.
The opening scene of Tyrannosaur, while it certainly sets the tone for the level that the film works on, could however cause some confusion about the nature and the location, as Joseph (Peter Mullan) rampages from pub to bookies to post-office, leaving a drunken trail of gruff guttural Scottish accent expletives in his wake and no small amount of violent destruction. It’s not Glasgow however, but Leeds, where Joseph, a widower, lives alone on a rough estate that seems to exist not so much in a permanent state of rundown misery and potential violence, as one that seems to be in decline and heading towards an ignominious self-destructive fate. Much like Joseph, who, having just kicked his dog to death in a fit of violent anger (yep – and things get much more brutal than that), retreats further into the isolating consolation of alcohol, his angry expression and explosive temper not just alienating him from those around him, but threatening to hasten his demise. After one such outburst however, Joseph hides in a Christian charity shop looking for retreat and grudgingly accepts or submits to the concerns of the woman working there, Hannah (Olivia Colman), who prays for him. Much good that does him, when he has his head kicked in later that night.
No doubt you’ll be seeing a pattern forming here, but in some ways, Paddy Considine isn’t just piling on the violence for effect, but rather indeed trying to follow the pattern of violence that you could say is endemic in British society. And, with Hannah’s supposedly comfortable middle-class home life on a posh estate with her husband James (Eddie Marsan) not exactly being idyllic – I’m not even going to go there in this review – Considine is showing that it’s not specifically a working class problem or related to life on a council estate. I’m not sure he really gets to the heart of where such violence comes from in Tyrannosaur, other than showing that there’s a seething anger that could spill over in just about anyone if pushed too far, but as the relationship that develops between Joseph and Hannah shows (as do Joseph’s stories about the “tyrannosaur”), the film isn’t just concerned about violence, but about other qualities that lie in the relationships people have with one another. If this is social realism, it’s on a rather more intimate level than the term or some of the extremely violent actions in the film suggests.
Tyrannosaur is also – again perhaps surprisingly – rather classical in its filmmaking style and narrative structure. The film doesn’t seek to impose a greyness or undue grittiness through shaky hand-held camera work, and that’s wholly appropriate for a film that isn’t seeking to exploit or emphasise the violence, but look beyond that at ordinary people caught up in it. And, crucially, it’s the fact that these are ordinary people that makes the difference here. If it’s hard to identify any personal stamp of the director’s on the look, style or aesthetic of the film, the style he adopts is nonetheless perfectly suited to drawing out and establishing those connections between ordinary people, the ordinary places they frequent (bars, charity shops, post offices), and the common occasions, events and experiences that draw them together. The violence notwithstanding (it is not a film that will endear itself to dog lovers, who will probably be more vocal than anyone concerned about depictions of human suffering), Tyrannosaur is however all the more striking and effective for its relative restraint.