Sunday 27 January 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 32. The War Zone

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

The War Zone
Director - Tim Roth
Country - UK
Year - 1999
Runtime - 99 Minutes

Tim Roth's hard-hitting directorial debut is a blistering assault on the senses that examines the pain and suffering experienced by a dysfunctional British family. Ray Winstone and Tilda Swinton star as a married couple whose loving relationship breaks down into a tumultuous and torrid affair shortly after their third child arrives. The family have only recently left London for a new life in an isolated farmhouse on the coast of Devon, and this move has clearly had an effect on their fifteen year old son Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), who is struggling with his transition to manhood. His older sister Jessie (Lara Belmont) is far more confident and assured, which intimidates Tom, and is the cause of friction between their parents.

From the outset, the family dynamic appears to be warm and caring, with everyone rallying around as a tight unit in preparation for the new arrival. This makes the shift towards the infighting and mistrust even more surprising as their hope for a peaceful life in the countryside becomes chaotic as dark secrets are unraveled. The story is told primarily through the voyeuristic view of Tom whose curious gaze uncovers horrible truths that shock him (and us) to the core.

The subject matter of The War Zone is harrowing and utterly depraved but the story Roth tells is a powerful and gripping coming of age drama that doesn't skirt around the issues he presents. Aware that the world we live in can be a cruel and bleak place, Roth delves into the heart of an abhorrent situation to explore the emotional impact of the vile crimes that are carried out, providing the audience with a stomach-churning view of a family in turmoil. The graphic depictions of assault and violence are handled adeptly with no glamourisation; painting a visceral picture of how such heinous acts result in painful physical suffering and an irreparable emotional scarring that impacts all of those affected.

It is telling that each of the film's actors who are not part of the family only make a single appearance on screen. Roth's focus is settled firmly on his main characters and their bleak emotional arcs, with little exposition given to those who exist outside of 'The War Zone'. One of these characters happens to be a young Colin Farrell who plays a young man with designs on Jessie, much to the chagrin of her protective brother, who accompanies them to the beach after dark as an awkward third wheel. This situation demonstrates Tom's caring nature and a strength of character by emphasising the loving bond he has with his sister, despite the aggravated situation they are experiencing at home.

It is difficult to find any redeeming qualities in the twisted and manipulative nature of Winstone's savage father figure, which is a testament to his incredible ability to completely inhabit the persona of inherently evil characters. Those familiar with Ladybird, Ladybird (also featured in my series here) or Nil By Mouth, may have an idea of what to expect from his performance but are unlikely to be prepared for the devastating acts of violence we are forced to suffer through. Swinton is spectacular as the tough matriarch who does her utmost to keep the family together in a testing time. The conflicting details this troubled mother hears from her loved ones clearly play havoc with her emotional state as she grapples with the disturbing truth, and Swinton's potent performance throughout reflects this with painful accuracy.

Each of the cast members deserve much applause for their dedicated performances. There are many
challenging scenes of violence and distress that feel incredibly raw to watch and Roth has clearly coaxed the best from these talented actors. The abusive and shocking moments we witness would not be as impactful if it were not for the subtle, subdued moments of calm or the stirring of anguish we see unfurling inside these actors from their nuanced changes in facial expressions. These sublime actors sell the story, and convince us that the events depicted within The War Zone are all too real.

As a slice of gritty British cinema, The War Zone stands as a towering achievement that should be considered in the same vein as revered films by Loach and Leigh, who likewise coax ferocious and unforgettable performances from their casts. Its earth-shattering denoument comes as a welcome relief from the savage acts of violence and showcases Roth's affinity for powerful storytelling. That Roth has never since returned to directing is a crying shame considering the boldness of his first and only foray behind the camera. He continues to create captivating performances in front of the camera, so we can only hope that one day Roth will transpose his skills to capturing the talents of others once more.

If you take the time to watch The War Zone then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!

For previous instalments in the series click here

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