Tuesday 20 March 2012

Fatherhood: "Wild Bill"

Different generations will have different relationships to Dexter Fletcher. To my lot, he'll forever be remembered - fondly - as the maverick American reporter Spike on the superior, Steven Moffat-created children's drama Press Gang, which set many of my contemporaries to wondering whether or not the actor was, in fact, American. Younger audiences may recall him in his role as "Dex", the motormouthed, air-punching host of TV's Gamesmaster; latecomers may be able to place him as one of the lairy geezers up to their necks in strife in Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock... and Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass. Wild Bill showcases Fletcher's latest, and in many ways surprising, incarnation: writer-director of a hugely entertaining character piece that suggests what might happen if Ritchie or Vaughn ever decided to grow up and tear themselves away from the Hollywood teat. The story of a once notorious hardman (Charlie Creed-Miles) returning to his Hackney manor after eight years in chokey in a bid to keep his two estranged lads out of trouble, Wild Bill has a secondary function as a snapshot of London's East End as it was in 2010-11: a location in the process of a reconstruction (one son has an apprenticeship with the firm building the Olympic velodrome) which comes to mirror the central character's attempts to build a new and better life for himself. 

Fletcher seemingly knows this patch well: he has a strong eye for its minimalls, its thriving branches of Greggs, its boozers on the verge of closure. For its interiors, too: cramped council housing where every resident's movements rub somebody else up the wrong way, unadorned corridors along which the characters shuttle back-and-forth, having to work doubly hard to get anywhere in particular. The above possibly makes Wild Bill sound like grim social realism, yet there's life on these streets, and - on an another level - the film appears to have been conceived as a celebration of the kind of character actor into which Fletcher has himself matured: performers capable of lifting any given scene with an idiosyncratic choice, look or turn of phrase. You couldn't describe any of Fletcher's performers as "stars" in the commercial sense, but they bring their own value to a plucky underdog project such as this, and putting enough of them in the same postcode gives the material an additional energy. On the side of the angels: Will Poulter, previously comic relief (Son of Rambow, the last Narnia), but here pulling off a tricky dramatic U-turn as Bill's eldest, a trainee brickie trying to assert his independence from a dad who, after an extended absence from the family home, now just wants a cuddle; and Charlotte Spencer as his single-mother sweetheart, one of a number of women very skilfully deployed to undercut or otherwise critique the maleness of the milieu. Indeed, it's inferred the absence of the fairer sex may have resulted in the instability of this household. "I ain't gonna forget this," snarls Poulter at the younger sibling who may just have blown his chances of happiness, or at least a shag. "Nobody ever does," retorts Liz White as the sardonic brass who's wound up on the family sofa while running from the local heavy. 

On the side of the devils (and there are, inevitably, more of these): Leo Gregory, making an atypically savvy career move as that self-same heavy; Kill List's Neil Maskell, tossing out "mugs" and "soppy bollocks"es and slowly growing into Frank Harper (a good thing); and Andy Serkis, resembling a malevolent Jeremy Beadle (all right, a more malevolent Beadle), while playing the neighbourhood crimelord in the most surprising and low-key fashion imaginable. On the cast list stretches: to Olivia Williams as a parole officer, Jaime Winstone and Jason Flemyng as social services, Sean Pertwee as a passing policeman. At the very least, Wild Bill deserves to be embraced for giving homegrown actors too often squandered in posturing urban flicks, and unlikely ever to turn up in genteel costume dramas, a worthwhile project with which to occupy themselves. A case in point is Creed-Miles himself, a likable performer who - from young punk to diamond geezer - has followed a career trajectory not dissimilar to his director's own. Now greying around the temples, he's terrific here as a man almost a decade behind the beat, and struggling to get back up to the frantic speed of the world around him. 

Between Bill's interactions with his sons, nemeses and the authorities, Fletcher affords his lead small, revealing moments of solitude - folding a solicitor's letter into a paper plane, having him insistently confronted by a starkly unwashed bog (liable to remain 2012's most evocative spot of production design) - that work towards a better understanding of the character's good-natured yet scrambled state-of-mind. This is one of those instances where having an actor-director directing an actor pays off beautifully: we know Bill must eventually take the long, lonely walk to face his demons, but the route by which he winds up there is fresh and unpredictable. Fletcher is willing to turn Bill into a sight gag, kitting him out in a hi-vis jacket under one of those "GOLF SALE" pointers that dot our cityscapes more in hope than anticipation; the collaboration even renders the scene where Bill unthinkingly hires a hooker for his embarrassed boy sweet and funny rather than creepy. Yet Creed-Miles is also credibly tough and battle-hardened when Fletcher needs him to be, nailing down what could have been windily didactic in the scene where Bill informs his delinquent youngest that prison is no cakewalk. On reflection, perhaps the ending - with its vague suggestion that violence can solve, if not everything, then maybe certain things - needed a little finessing, but the rest is nothing short of smashing. Nice one, Dex. 

Wild Bill opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

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