I’ll admit from the off that I approached this film with some trepidation.
Not that I was concerned about quality. On the contrary, I’ve been excited about the film for several reasons, foremost of which is that it is written and directed by one of my favourite current UK actors – Paddy Considine – who is always an asset to whatever he appears in, and frequently shines as charismatic and troubling characters (A Room for Romeo Brass, My Summer of Love and Dead Man’s Shoes).
However, the subject matter of Tyrannosaur presents a problem, as it’s difficult to look forward, or choose to watch a film that features a gritty depiction of spousal abuse and the inner violence of people, no matter how accomplished the film and performances might be.
This is especially difficult when the film in question doesn’t place itself within the frame of a genre – this is not a horror film, so the vicarious pleasures encountered as part of that genre, the fantastical/stylised vision of violence done to the body, is stripped away. For these reasons, I had to steel myself to get into the right frame of mind to watch it.
Tyrannosaur concerns the forming of a relationship between an aggressive and short-fused widower, Joseph (Peter Mullan), and Christian Charity shop worker, Hannah (Olivia Coleman), a younger woman whose husband, James (Eddie Marsan), is violently abusive. They first meet when Joseph bursts into the shop, only to hide himself behind a rail of coats, rigid with anger and repressed violence following an outburst at the local pub.
Hannah’s reaction informs the nature of their developing friendship, as she talks to him calmly – recognizing his vulnerability – and eventually offering to pray for him. The film follows this pairing and their apparent oppositions (divided along gender, class and religious lines), their wary appreciation of each other’s emotional and physical fragility as they become increasingly supportive and important to one another’s lives, as other people’s violence forces them both to strike out.
The performances, particularly Coleman, Marsan and Mullan, are raw and affecting, but never too big for the general quietness of the film. The narrative requires them to the emotional centre, which is certainly achieved, and not without considerable ambiguity. These are not loveable characters. And while that might go without saying for the abusive husband, or Joseph’s uncommunicative and angry lashing out (dog lovers will find him especially difficult to feel emotionally engaged with), Hannah is not presented as straightforwardly sympathetic either.
In such an unremittingly downbeat film, their fleshing out of these characters provides a crucial point of connection, giving them complexity and a fully-rounded presence, providing an all important magnetic field for the details of the plot. Indeed, this magnetism is something that Considine’s own performances so often provides – Tyrannosaur feels very much like a film he would appear in, close to the tone of Shane Meadows’ films (Considine’s friend, several of whose films he has appeared in), though without a great deal of their humour.
At the same time, I was left feeling a little unsure of what to do with the events of the film – for all the complexities of performance, the events of the film don’t sit easily (and nor should they) and while characters change, it’s hard to see whether that progression is the point of the film (in which case it suggests a ‘learning through misfortune’ or ‘highlighting social problems’ film – which it doesn’t really feel like) or whether the violence and emotional pain is it’s main purpose (which again doesn’t quite fit the bill).
Part of it’s power is to present villains as characters, to undermine the stylization (and safety) of a generic context, but this also leaves an uncomfortable gap in place of understanding why we watch, a troubling feeling which doesn’t necessarily feel at the root of the film’s purpose.