Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenplay: Robin Hill & Ben Wheatley
Producer: Andrew Starke
Starring: Robin Hill, Robert Hill, Julia Deakin, David Schaal, Kerry Peacock, Michael Smiley, Tony Way
BBFC Certification: 18
Duration: 89 min
At first glance Down Terrace is the sort of film I wouldn't touch with a barge pole. British gangster movies died a death about a decade ago and now all star Danny Dyer and take up space in supermarket bargain buckets. The DVD cover for this features a grizzled, suited hard-man and a title filled in with the Union Jack so I was very dubious. However I'd heard some buzz about the film online and thought it might be worth checking out. All I can say now is that the DVD cover is totally misleading and this film does not deserve the bargain bucket fate of the latest Lock Stock clone.
Down Terrace is actually more of a low key comedy drama than a rip-roaring action thriller, bringing to mind Mike Leigh or The Office more than Guy Ritchie or The Long Good Friday. The first half of the film in particular is devoid of any criminal activities and focuses on the mundanities of life for Karl and Bill, a father and son pair of Brighton gangsters, as they try to figure out who turned them in to the police. The film does eventually get quite violent, more bleak and fairly dramatic, but it still never gets glossy or flashy. Pretty much the whole film stays in one house, which is very ordinary, never suggesting that these people have ever had piles of drug money lying around.
The film feels largely improvised, frequently using hard cuts to keep the scenes held together, presumably masking more drawn out scenes of dialogue. This works in the film's favour though, keeping it lean, despite the lack of action or change of locations. Listening to the audio commentary on the DVD (see below) it seems that the film was only semi-improvised though, with a script that was followed quite closely and only occasional tangents. It probably feels quite loose and natural because of the fact that most of the cast are so familiar with each other. Two of the lead performers, Robin and Robert Hill, are actually father and son in real life and the film is even shot in the father's house, which adds a convincing familiarity and strong chemistry between the pair. The son (and co-writer) Robin on his own isn't the best actor in the world and I found him occasionally annoying, coming across too often as whiny and a fraction over the top. Together though it works nicely, which is vital to the success of the film. Speaking of performances, Julia Deakin is a revelation here. A TV comedy actress in the UK, I remember her chiefly from her role as the hard-drinking landlady Marsha in Spaced where she was very funny, but totally over the top. Here she goes as far away from that as she can, delivering a wonderfully subtle, yet powerfully pivotal performance as the Lady Macbeth-like mother character, Maggie.
It's a promising debut from Hill and Wheatley, bringing something fresh to a tired genre, injecting it with some much needed humanity and sly humour. The comedy never takes centre stage, but the film has some very funny moments, largely through interactions with some of the more interesting side characters. Pringle, played by Michael Smiley, was particularly memorable, a ruthless hitman who goes everywhere with his young son and makes light of his disturbing career. It's not always amazingly consistent though, the few times the film actually goes for clear gags it doesn't always work. I wasn't a big fan of Johnny either, who plays a representative of the more powerful London branch. He's more well spoken to presumably set him apart from the rest of the Brighton gangsters, but this comes across as a bit forced and unconvincing. He's only in the film briefly luckily.
Down Terrace's plot isn't particularly strong either, getting a bit muddled and over the top towards the end, belittling the more naturalistic aspects of it all, but all in all I can forgive it for being a bit rough around the edges. For a film with such a low budget and coming from a first time writing/directing team this is very impressive. It nicely balances the unglamorous and the downbeat with the humorous and the quirky and works best when it's just letting its characters breathe and play off one another. Hill and Wheatley are definitely a pair to look out for.
Down Terrace is released on 23rd August by Metrodome. There are a handful of extras on the DVD including deleted/extended scenes, early short films, test footage and most importantly a commentary by the writer/director team. I was meaning to just listen to a sample of this to get a gist of the tone of the commentary for this review, but ended up getting hooked and listening to the whole thing. The two filmmakers have a great chemistry together, due to years of making films as a pair and it's a pleasure to listen to their banter. It's also fascinating to hear just how low budget and 'kept in the family' the film actually is. Pretty much everyone in the film is either related to the two guys or is a friend from a previous TV project. It's a great listen and helps make this DVD a must buy.