Is Paddy Considine the most important man in British cinema right now? At a time when the transition of power from the UKFC to the BFI threatens to punch a temporary hiatus in a wave of British creativity, and also considering my concerns expressed in an article a few months ago about the lack of innovation and originality in a national cinema which seems determined to play it safe, does Considine represent an actor and now a director willing to pursue genuine artistic daring whilst remaining staunchly wedded to his national cinema? Some of the best film directors of the moment are British, but with the exceptions of Shane Meadows and Andrea Arnold most seem keen to create distance between their work and the common conception of British cinema. Similarly, one can reel off a list of tremendous British acting talents still operating on peak form (Hardy, Fassbender, Swinton) but again the majority of their output runs contrary to films in the mould of “In America,” “A Room for Romeo Brass,” and “Dead Man’s Shoes:” the works which established Considine as being much more than “The British De Niro.”
At first glance, Paddy Considine’s directorial debut “Tyrannosaur” would appear to be exactly the kind of well-trodden piece of social realism the British have always excelled at making, but which I have frankly tired of as a knee-jerk instinctive safety net genre in which to create cinema in this country. Certainly the themes of class division, domestic abuse and socio-emotional alienation are not unknown to film audiences, but Considine tackles these issues with such a blistering, visceral level of passion, integrity and raw honesty that to criticize him for broaching these themes is rendered as pointless as criticizing the sky for being blue. Anyone who read the “Sight and Sound” interview with Considine and Peter Mullan will know that “Tyrannosaur” is in fact seeking to distance itself from the social realist cinematic tradition. This genre would at first appear to fit the film like a glove, but whilst social realism is typically defined by an unflinching degree of truth, honesty and bluntness in its portrayal of issues, characters and situations. This simplicity in the name of truth is muddied in the waters of “Tyrannosaur,” which also sees its director reject the traditional visual aesthetic of the genre: jerky, hand-held camerawork is replaced by Considine with placid stillness and careful static compositions: his truth comes from allowing us to see everything, unhindered and un-manipulated.
However, it is the depth, texture and moral and religious resonances of the piece that marks it as more than standard British social realist fare. Considine is not content to portray real-world violence in a grueling and unflinching manner, though this is certainly achieved, but is also concerned with the retributive nature of violence, and our complicity with it as a form of just resolution. We are rightly appalled in the opening scene when Mullan’s irascible, enraged Joseph kicks his dog to death, and are disgusted by his verbal and physical abuse of those around him, often triggered by the minutest of provocations, and the suffering Olivia Colman’s Hannah received at the hands of her vicious husband, Eddy Marsan’s James, is met with even greater audience repulsion. Yet this violence isn’t necessarily repugnant because of the intensity of its execution: rather it is our empathy with the victims which renders it so unstomachable and uncomfortable. When similarly excessive and murderous acts of violence take place in the final scenes of the film, the audience is not repulsed but strangely gratified because the violence has been visited upon those who have harmed innocents: Joseph’s decapitation of the dog that scarred a young boy’s face, and Hannah’s stabbing of her husband. The presentation of the violence is the same, yet we crave it as a fitting means of justice, rendering us horribly complicit in the continuing cycle of violent self-destruction. Indeed, Mullan doling out violence as retributive punishment rather than inchoate self-expression marks his journey into ironic civilization, and the ability to be at one with his surroundings and his community: yet it also paints him as an anti-christ, an avenging angel which satisfies the religious journey of Colman’s Hannah. Hannah is devoutly Christian at the beginning of the film, but she is the ridiculed and misunderstood archetype of a New Testament Christian: practicing forgiveness and turning the other cheek even in the most atrocious circumstances. However, when her suffering reaches a brutal peak, it is the destruction of this specific kind of Christianity which marks the deterioration of her sanity and control. Spurning her New Testament convictions by ripping a picture of Christ from the wall of her charity shop, she turns to the Old Testament God of fire, brimstone and retribution for safety and comfort, personified ironically in the form of Joseph, and paradoxically inspired by his impulsive fits of violent rage exacts revenge upon her husband: a revenge which the audience would be lying if it said it didn’t partially condone, and view as being just.
What is truly remarkable and provocative about “Tyrannosaur” to me is how it represents one of the most audacious, talented and courageous artists in British cinema championing the supremacy of his art form by setting it in direct opposition to an established form of high art, and triumphing with supreme ease. To illustrate what I mean by this, let me ask a question: why do people go to the theatre today? This question excludes the musical as discussions of cinema exclude the blockbuster: both are the mainstream manifestations of their separate forms, and are geared more towards escapism, spectacle and entertainment than true artistry. Back to the question, and I would propose that people rarely attend the theatre to see a ground-breaking new play or to follow the work of a particular director: the two dictations of cinema-going which most promisingly lead to the discovery of original and impressive new films, which both resonate with our times and meditate upon timeless ideas. I would suggest that people go to the theatre for one of two reasons: to see classic and timeless plays (in the same way classic films can be viewed again and again), and to see talented actors performing live. The problems herein are also twofold; firstly, theatre doesn’t balance established classics with new works in the same way that easy access to films in cinemas and on DVD have facilitated individual engagement with great films; and secondly I have never in my well-versed theatre-going experience witnessed performances as powerful as those given by the three lead actors of “Tyrannosaur.” Perhaps the nature of film is that whilst the energy and excitement of live performance is absent, what is gained instead is greater subtlety, intensity and believability. Mullan and Marsan are reliably, searingly brilliant in pretty much everything they do, but neither has ever been better than they are in this film, playing characters that are by turns despicable and pitiful, supremely balancing audience empathy and revulsion. Olivia Colman is a revelation. She gives in “Tyrannosaur” the most powerful and moving performance I can remember ever having seen in a film. To betray the intricate moments and general delicacy of her handling of the character and material would be to spoil a true acting masterclass: one which, rest assured, could not have been achieved in the theatre. This being the case, why go to the theatre to see actors for reasons other than the superficial, vacuous desire to see a celebrity performer in the flesh? Film has its origins in photography, but the human compulsion towards grand narratives and storytelling saw the art form gravitate naturally towards dramatic fiction and the medium of theatre, which it has been trumping in every way ever since.
Considine is far from the first person to produce work which authoritatively demonstrates film demolishing the abilities of theatre. Ingmar Bergman worked in both forms, yet who can remember a single play he worked on? In films like “Cries and Whispers,” he is working in the Scandinavian chamber drama tradition of theatre practitioners such as Ibsen and Strindberg, yet the film medium adds visual power and depth as well as the facility for more nuanced and naturalistic performances. The women dress in stark, funereal black clothes which restrict their movements, and restrict their ability to communicate with each other, and they move like ethereal specters through an interior of arterial red: Bergman thought this is what the soul would look like, and it is a baroque and artfully colourful claustrophobia the theatre would not be able to replicate. In Kurosawa’s Shakespeare adaptations, how could theatre match the haunting, ghostly mirage of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane in “Throne of Blood,” or the horrors of Civil War and the tearing apart of family and community as phenomenally as the battle scenes of “Ran?” For those who counter the idea that the spectacular choreography, the gaudy and lavish production design, and the musical charge of live theatre cannot be replicated on film, I would submit the ballet sequences in “The Red Shoes” and any of Gene Kelly’s greatest films as Exhibit A for the defense.
“Tyrannosaur” is not just a tremendously moving, astonishing debut from a man I have an infinite amount of time for, but is also an example of a form mistakenly viewed as low art conquering a commonly held stigma regarding a conflicting high art: specifically, if you think you’ve seen a performance in the theatre recently that matches how good Olivia Colman is in this, then you’re either lying or just plain wrong.