Tyrannosaur (United Kingdom, 2011)April 10, 2013
Spoilers! Yeah, I talk about the ending.
Although the name makes it sound like a monster movie (which it could be, after a fashion), Tyrannosaur is actually a member of a peculiar class of film unique to the U.K.: the "feel bad" tale of working-class misery. The cardinal of this genre is Ken Loach and most of the films included in the category owe a debt to him, although not all are as openly political as the ones he produces. Loach is a proud leftist and wears his Socialist tendencies like a badge; they are evident in every frame of every film he has made (although that in no way diminishes the power of his best work). Other filmmakers working in this arena are often less interested in making a statement than in telling deeply human stories. Paddy Considine, making his feature directorial debut, is best known as an actor who has participated in his fair share of these movies. Although he has never worked for Loach, he has been featured in movies by Michael Winterbottom, Jim Sheridan, Pawel Pawlikowski, and Paul Greengrass, all of whom have dabbled in the genre, so he comes with a solid background. And, for his lead, he has chosen powerhouse character actor Peter Mullan, who gave a career-best performance in Loach's My Name Is Joe.
Tyrannosaur is a character study/slice-of-life drama about have-nots who eke out an existence in Leeds. These aren't "upwardly mobile" individuals; they're men and women struggling to keep their heads above water and who may never venture far from their ramshackle homes. Considine doesn't seek to "prettify" the setting. He filmed on-location using locals as extras. Although his leads are experienced actors, most of the supporting performers are not. The verisimilitude is striking and lends a great deal of power to the tale that unfolds in Tyrannosaur. Those who favor this kind of motion picture will find themselves immediately transported into the world in which it transpires. Considine doesn't so much craft a milieu as transpose a real-life one to the screen.
Joseph (Mullan) is an angry man. His anger is directed at everyone and everything, including himself, and is at its worst when he drinks, which is often. In one of Tyrannosaur's early scenes, he kicks a dog to death and things don't get better from there. When it comes to violence, Joseph gives and receives in roughly equal amounts. His only "friend" is Samuel (Samuel Bottomley), the young son of a neighbor who is frequently abused and neglected by his mother and her boyfriend, but Joseph isn't exactly a good role model for the kid. Then Joseph meets Hannah (Olivia Colman) and his life changes.
Hannah is a meek woman, the kind of person whose deeply-rooted religious devotion leads her to accept whatever life doles out. She has a Job-like view of suffering. Her relationship with her husband, James (Eddie Marsan), falls into the classic abuse category. He beats her then, overcome with remorse, tearfully apologizes and promises not to do it again. But the promises are quickly forgotten and the rage returns when Hannah does something James doesn't approve of. When he sees her showing kindness to Joseph, jealousy overwhelms him.
Hannah and Joseph's relationship is a tenuous thing. There's something in her gentleness that attracts him and she sees in him a wounded animal in need of care. Ultimately, Tyrannosaur turns into a tale of redemption but it's unconventional and unsentimental in the way it finds its way to that route. Their love - if one wants to use that word to describe the bond they form - doesn't come easily or without a steep price. This is no Hollywood romance in which characters traverse a formulaic trajectory. However, there's real emotion evident in what these individuals feel for each other and it allows for an ending that, while not exactly "happy" in the traditional sense, can at least be characterized as "hopeful." And that's a word one wouldn't use for a lot of what transpires during the course of Tyrannosaur.
Calling Joseph a "curmudgeon" would be softening his rough edges too much. He's a thoroughly dislikeable character. As the film progresses, he doesn't grow on the viewer although one comes to an understanding of who he is. But, although Tyrannosaur offers redemption of a sort to Joseph, this isn't a Hollywood-style story about the grumpy old guy whose gruff exterior hides a heart of gold. This isn't Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. That's not to say Joseph has no redeeming qualities but it's hard to warm up to a man whose first action is to kick his dog to death while in a drunken rage. (He later regrets the action but what's done is done.)
Peter Mullan is at home in Joseph's skin. He's familiar with playing this sort of character although he's perhaps never essayed someone as flawed as Joseph. He is perhaps best remembered for playing another "Joe," the alcoholic title character in the Loach film, but his career is long and includes a few stints behind the camera (including The Magdalene Sisters). He would properly be characterized as a character actor - if you don't know the name, you'd probably know the face if you've seen more than a handful of British films made over the past couple of decades. Mullan is an intense, fiery actor and he brings a sense of volcanic self-loathing to Joseph. Here's a man who doesn't like himself any more than we do but he's too stubborn to change his ways.
Hannah represents his salvation but she's hardly an angel as plot developments illustrate. She's the classic battered wife: timid, gentle, and hoping against hope that her husband will change. She is initially drawn to Joseph because of a nurturing impulse. Olivia Colman's performance, arguably Tyrannosaur's standout, makes Hannah a sadly sympathetic figure. She's more tragic than pathetic and her attraction to Joseph is anything but simple or straightforward. This portrayal is evidence of Colman's range as an actress; she's usually cast in lighter fare (her best-known Stateside role may be as Queen Elizabeth in Hyde Park on the Hudson). The give-and-take of Mullan and Colman as they navigate the waters of their relationship makes for the film's most compelling element.
Considine's style is low-key and generous toward his actors. He gives them space to broaden and deepen the characters as they see fit. The approach is more structured than that of Mike Leigh, who relies primarily on improvisation, but Considine doesn’t treat his screenplay like the Bible. By relying upon the actors and focusing on the characters, Tyrannosaur opens up to let the viewer in. The finished product seems organic with the director's influence being transparent. There's nothing flashy about Considine; he never calls attention to his contribution. This is all about the characters, the setting, and the story that ties them together.
On an initial viewing, Tyrannosaur may seem to be a rather grim and challenging experience. When placed under a microscope, however, it can be seen as more upbeat than is initially apparent. Distilled to its essence, Tyrannosaur is about the triumph over adversity. It's about people who, instead of being beaten down by circumstances that many of us would consider to be untenable, find a way to continue and perhaps even grasp a few straws of hope. No one is going to use the phrase "feel good" to describe Tyrannosaur, but "feel bad" does it a disservice. It's a very human story that offers a view of life through clear lenses, not the rose-tinted ones prevalent in a motion picture industry that makes most of its money by selling fantasies.
Tyrannosaur (United Kingdom, 2011)
Cast: Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman, Eddie Marsan, Samuel Bottomley
Screenplay: Paddy Considine
Cinematography: Erik Alexander Wilson
Music: Dan Baker, Chris Baldwin
U.S. Distributor: Strand Releasing