Thursday, 30 December 2010


Down Terrace is a darkly comic thriller that plays like theatre, specifically Fifties kitchen-sink dramas. Directed by Ben Wheatley, and written by him with Robin Hill, who stars as Karl, it's a low budget first feature that makes much of its limitations, in the much the same way, one comes to think, that the characters themselves do. It's set in Brighton, to which Karl has returned after his unexpected acquittal. Karl's living in his parents' home, wanting to know which of his father's gang has grassed him, wanting to get back into the family business, and not wanting to paint the sitting room, which seems to be his dad's main concern. Father Bill is played by Hill's father Robert, and he more than holds his own with the professional Julia Deakin as his mother Maggie. Much of the humour comes from the family setting; Bill is an unreconstructed hippie who's progressed from dealing drugs into bigger time crime, and his gang are played as a bumbling group of losers you'd find in your own local, almost like kids playing at gangsters, just the average psychopathic British family. It's sort of like Mike Leigh without the tenderness, and the corrupt local councillor and the bigtime gangster from London could have walked out of almost any Sixties or Seventies sitcom, soap, or crime drama. And there ought to be a part for Rita Tushingham in it somewhere. But it's also very modern, as the characters discuss their problems in various sorts of psychobabble, aware of some of their own limitations, or at least the defintions of them, not that it has any effect on their behaviour.

But there's another kind of theatre happening here, which is cued by Deakin's performance as the passive-agressive Lady Macbeth, Maggie, with plenty of Oedipal Gertrude thrown in. It's classic Elizabethan revenge drama at its most grand guignol, Titus Andronicus or The Revenger's Tragedy set in a Brighton Terrace. Karl has trouble adjusting to his return; he tries to put his life right but gets his girlfriend pregnant. Eventually, always surrendering to his need for revenge, and never getting it right, he accepts what seems the inevitable path--the film descends into bloody black comedy, which doesn't quite work, in the sense that it is a sharp jump in mood. But throughout the film, we've been given such jumps, with the characters often revealing hidden emotions, personal interpretations loaded with violence, and sometimes larded with humour. It's very well written, and well-acted, especially in the sense that the amateur nature of the case reinforces the ordinariness of this criminal world. It's a shame this film, which was generally well-reviewed, didn't get more attention when it was released; I suspect that, half a century after John Osborne and the rest, there's still that Brighton Rock-style disconnect; these working-class criminals are supposed to be supporting players in society's bigger story--the fact that these are, on the face of it ordinary English folk who turn out to be quite psychopathic when you dig below the surface may well have been something which, after a decade of horrible Lock Stock gangster-chic films made by posh types glamourising the lower classes, was too much a short sharp shock.

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