Britain is no longer the quaint, old-fashioned idyll of Ealing Studios. It’s a place better represented by concrete than crinoline these days. These days, Britons don’t Look Back in Anger; they Look Forward to Anger. Impotent rage is like a bookmark, separating out the week. Perhaps it’s a legacy of Thatcherism. Maybe it’s a post-colonial bellyache. But the tea cosy world of Alastair Sim is long gone. British cinema isn’t something you’d show to your granny. You’re lucky if you come away from a British film without a thorn in your eye. On paper, Paddy Considine’s bleak drama, Tyrannosaur, seems like a case in point. After hearing the premise, I was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t make me want to slit my wrists.
A violent alcoholic meets a miserable woman in a charity shop; he’s just kicked his dog to death, she’s being abused by her husband. Amidst the squalor and degradation of modern Britain, the couple form a tentative friendship, only to find their bond tested, by rape, murder and a second man-on-dog killing. Oh yes, and the husband pisses on his wife at one stage. And a small boy has half his face bitten off. And the sky is the colour of offal most of the time. And God is dead. And why why why would you watch this (when life is hard enough already)? Well, I’ll tell you. While this film is, ostensibly, the usual British treasure trove of ugliness and despair; it’s also touching and beautiful. You have to look past the dead dogs.
Look at the face of Peter Mullan, for instance. Yes, he looks like the angriest man in the world. But he’s also a handsome devil, when he isn’t scowling. The role he plays in this movie is the same role Mullan nearly always plays: drunk and belligerent. In Tyrannosaur, his character seems to be paid by the local council to smash windows and get into fights. And yet, Mullan brings his usual integrity to the role as well. He can’t help but instil this human bacterium with some virtue. You just know he’s going to be the hero of this story, no matter what he does. It’s the same quality Steven Spielberg saw in him, when he cast Mullan as a drunk and belligerent (and yet noble) tenant farmer in the recent weepie, War Horse.
Interesting to compare the rose-tinted view of Britain proffered by Spielberg with the shard of glass that Paddy Considine shoves at you. The two films don’t look like they have much in common, apart from scenes of animal cruelty. However, that’s the superficial view. What saves Tyrannosaur from nihilism is the same thing that prevents Spielberg movies from being only about schmaltz: a simple faith in human nature. There is kindness in Considine’s film. I’m not saying Peter Mullan is playing a human version of the horse from War Horse. The woman from the charity shop doesn’t wind up saving him from the trenches. But in the same way that War Horse was about compassion and loyalty, so too is this carnivorous drama.
Events do not unfold the way you expect. You see two stone-faced angry bastards pitted against one another, over a woman, and you think you know the outcome. You couldn’t be more wrong. Mullan doesn’t lay a finger on the abusive husband. No love story evolves, or at least, not in the conventional sense. Olivia Colman, who plays the battered wife, is a far more complex figure than she first appears. And it’s largely down to her that the film makes such an impact. She’s the most British character in some respects: stoic and forbearing on the surface; a mass of resentment underneath. Her sad little life is carefully hidden from prying eyes. She’s someone who’s easy to ridicule. Many actresses would play up the pathos of the role, but Colman’s secret is to find this woman’s strength. There’s as much wounded pride in her eyes as any hard man who daily gets into fights. They’re both trapped by disposition.
For some people, the effect of watching Tyrannosaur will be as if you were Peter Mullan’s dog. You go in wanting to support this poor Brit and wind up feeling like your heart got squished. I wish I could help those people put aside their fears. I wish the dour look of this film were misleading and that it was like The Artist, imbued with a witty savoir faire, instead of gritty realism. All I can say to those people, who hear the words “dead dog” and want to run a mile, is that this film is about more than senseless violence. It wasn’t made to make you depressed. Broken Britain might be real, and forgiveness hard to come by, but this film isn’t just a slab of misery. There is cause for hope; albeit, not for man’s best friend.