The War Zone - rated - HOT! HOT! HOT! (BUT CHILLING)

Scarred for life

Bleak, bleak, bleak. But what a debut film for Tim Roth as a director!

From the framing of the first few shots we can see that Roth has a wonderful photographic eye. With this film he proves that he can make a film which is accomplished both visually, and as a matter of narrative. And he allows his (superbly chosen) actors to do their very best. All of the cast is outstanding.

I think Roth has made a savagely beautiful (and a beautifully savage) film. It is also a very clever one. It deals in a calm, austere way with the difficult topic of incest. It doesn't hold back on the horror of the situation, and in fact confronts it in the most blatant way possible.

Roth prepares us ever so carefully for the horrific truth - so carefully that I began to wonder whether he had actually crossed the line into voyeurism. The pure bleakness of the setting on the windy grey Devon coast, the intimacy of the family scenes, the fact that these people live close, and are comfortable - or so it seems - with each other's nudity, are all forewarnings of what is to come. Even a (superbly realistic and scary) car crash scene seems to prefigure the suffering the family is in for - and points to the fact that they will survive and go on, even if they are badly damaged.

But, on balance, I don't believe Roth crosses the line. Because above all, Roth is giving us the horror of this crime in its context. And the context is necessarily the closeness of family.

There are many scenes which eloquently make this point - often without a word of dialogue. Roth, his actors, and the screenplay writer Alexander Stuart (who adapted his own bestselling novel) are content to let many scenes play out in silence - chilling silence. That is truly assured behaviour in a first-time director - Roth's a natural.

Some of the things that struck me as odd in the opening scenes I soon realised were carefully setting us up. In the early scenes, the kids are so passive. The new baby, born during the car crash is so perfect amongst all the carnage. There's a scene when Tilda Swinton (as the Mother), is in hospital after the birth, nursing her baby and she asks her son: "Do you want a cuddle?" She then cradles her grown son in her arms and you are shocked to realise it is not the baby he wants to cuddle.

There's also an odd little sequence when Tom, the son, and Jessie the daughter, go to visit Jessie's friend Carol, an Irish prostitute. "I could be your mother," she says to Tom. "No you couldn't," says Tom. Is Jessie trying to placate Tom in this scene, or show him the same she's feeling? There's also the odd fact that whenever Tom tries to enter his house, the front door always closed and he has to go in through the back door. There is just so much detail packed into this film.

Tilda Swinton gives what is often called a "courageous" performance, which usually means one without much makeup. But here, Swinton redefines the word "courageous". Her body is extraordinary in its reality. It's really quite a shock! Here is the slender elegant actor from Orlando (Sally Potter, 1992) and Female Perversions (Susan Streitfeld, 1996), first heavily pregnant, and later, after giving birth, seen naked in bed with her husband, swollen belly still in evidence.

Ray Winstone as the Father is in danger of being typecast as a family abuser. He played a wife beater in both Ladybird, Ladybird (Ken Loach, 1994) and Nil By Mouth (Gary Oldman, 1997). Winstone is fantastic in The War Zone. He swings from a slightly incompetent but lovable builder, warm and loving with his family, to a violent, irrational, terrifying tyrant - in a heartbeat. But throughout even the most harrowing scenes he remains not only human, but a member of a family. There is a scene which is a kind of allegory for this two-facedness: in his living room, he is in the foreground, cuddling and & talking to the baby in front of his son Tom. He is so happy and smug. It speaks volumes about the nature of his love for his children. It begins as heartwarmingly ordinary and ends as chilling.

Roth never lets up. He doesn't release the tension, but just builds it up gradually, at such a leisurely pace that it comes as a surprise to realise the film is just 99 minutes long. It never feels too long - it's just that the pace is perfect for the subject matter. Things get so sombre at one point that that the dialogue descends into this:
"Say something!" demands Jessie, the daughter of her brother. '
"What?" he asks
" Dunno - anything," she replies.
Now that's minimalist dialogue!

Funnily enough, I want to single out Megan Thorp (who plays the baby, Alice) - or perhaps more correctly the film's sound editor, for praise. The poor crying baby is fantastic. It is realistic, pitiful, irritating - just like the effect of a real baby. And it is not foregrounded in any way - it is just part of the context of the whole. This is beautiful attention to detail.

And when it comes right down to the incest scene - strangely, it's not the act of incest itself that is so upsetting. It is more the gap, the silence, the heads covered and turned away afterwards that breaks your heart as you comprehend the shame that both of them feel.

The final scene of The War Zone is as hard and desperate as just about anything I've ever seen. And once Roth delivers his final blow, you know you will never forget what you've seen. It is an amazing piece of work, which deliver one last very strange message with Roth's dedicating in the credits: "For my father." Chilling indeed.