Saturday 31 July 2010

Thicker than water: "Down Terrace"

A decade on from the initial wave of post-Guy Ritchie mockney capers, and four years from Paul Andrew Williams' revivifying London to Brighton, it's stupefying to think anyone could have found a new angle on the British gangster movie, yet Ben Wheatley's Down Terrace does precisely that with an understated, leftfield and very British humour.

After criminal charges are dropped against them, the father-son head of a South Coast drug syndicate retreat to the terrace house they share in Brighton. It becomes a retreat very nearly as evocative - and, it turns out, exactly as vulnerable - as any Shakespearian fortress: truly, the walls are closing in. While dad (Robert Hill) tries to nail down who sold his mob out in the first place, and mum (Julia Deakin) fusses over the details of her new kitchen, their unstable offspring (Wheatley's co-writer Robin Hill) appears poised on the brink of a complete meltdown - and the arrival of his suddenly pregnant girlfriend hardly alleviates his paranoia. Some indication of the latter's instability: his first instinct is to call the baby Enoch or Norbert.

Wheatley cut his teeth on the Johnny Vegas vehicle Ideal, one of BBC3's few qualitative successes, and a sitcom that strove to throw the viewer off-guard with each new knock at its slobbish anti-hero's front door: it was often as funny-strange as it was funny ha ha. A televisual background is evident in the film (backed, as Ideal was, by Steve Coogan and Henry Normal's production company Baby Cow) in the way Wheatley makes the family home - with its ripped ceiling tiles and peeling paint - the star of the show. Interrogations here take place on a sofa, over mugs of tea and mum's jam tarts; when one suspected informant locks himself behind a partition door, dad remains calmly resolute: "Don't break it down - it's Victorian".

The result is a very Ideal-like mix of domestic drudgery (incongruous build-ups of culture - piles of CDs and literature - turn out to be artefacts being fenced on eBay) and sharp, funny observation of the generally pathetic achievements and aspirations of this particular branch of disorganised crime. Special mention must go to the assassin whose fatal flaw is asthma, and the bejumpered Irish heavy (Michael Smiley) who went on holiday to Bosnia and "ended up having a go in the War". It can't quite sustain itself through to the bloody end, but there's a real surprise in encountering a first feature adorned with a workable script, pitch-perfect performances and unexpectedly winning choices in most other departments: when was the last time you saw a contemporary crime movie scored to traditional, portentous folk songs?

Down Terrace is on selected release.

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