Friday, 30 July 2010


Murder! British style.

Oh, the glamorous life of a British gangster!

A guitar playing Yoga practitioner mafia boss reminiscing of the free love swinging 60s between interminable cups of tea, decorating the breakfast room and burying the bodies of their latest victims? The flower revolution in free fall? A down trodden terraced house in Brighton, badly needing a lick of paint, at least? A suspected grass shutting himself down in a bedroom in fear (justified) of his life, yet the ‘baddies’ refusing to kick the door down as it is Victorian? A family, both in the sense of a criminal fraternity and a blood related one, destroying itself in a fit of paranoia? An ending which is apparently closed, but in reality being as open as they come?

All of these are found in British thriller Down Terrace, a low budget family based film just released, a thriller different to any other I have seen. The theme underlying it is the paranoia that fuel the self-destruction of a family, and issues such as family bonds and hierarchy, betrayal, all the simmering tensions found in any suburban family coupled with those emanating from their criminal activities.

The first scene shows two men coming out of the Law Court building, a street sign in the foreground indicating, ominously, the way to the Police. We soon learn that they are Karl, just acquitted, and his father, Bill, the boss of the Brighton underworld. If I had met someone such as Karl in the street, I would have thought that he was an accountant rather than a hardened criminal - certainly he has dreams of being just a normal dad when he learns that Valda, his girlfriend, is pregnant. Will he be? Maggie, his mother and Bill’s wife, herself the daughter of a gangster as it is hinted at in the film, is at first a silent figure in the background, cleaning the mess made by the men, an impression produced by the tone of Bill’s voice when he asks her to make a cup of tea when they get to the reception gathering in their terraced house, soon turn out to be very much in the thick of things, a motherly figure with the blackest of souls.

They ponder who grassed Karl to the police, not realizing that, by doing so, they pressed the family’s self-destruction button. And what a self-destruction it was! From this low key beginning the intensity of the tension increases, between dashes of dark humour and comic situations, some of them being intentionally quite ridiculous, until the utterly unexpected climax... which is open.

Which poses the question: Could Down Terrace be the British Godfather?

The first characteristic of Down Terrace that struck me was how wordy it is: every space, every frame, every scene, is filled with words, the dialogue flickering between the deadly serious to the most banal, even when preceding a murder, British style. The second characteristic was how home bound it is, claustrophobic: most of the action, structured around the suspicion underlying the vibrant dialogue, develops either in the sitting, the breakfast room or in a bedroom. The third characteristic is that the story is told in sharp scenes, akin cinematic tableaux, each of them with a defined mood. These traits makes me think that this film could also work quite well on the stage.

The mood vibrates between the homely – such as when Maggie, the mother, undoes the tie knot of his son, Karl, after returning from the court – to the paranoid – when the family tries to work out who the informer (or informers) may have been, to the dark shadows of murder, some of them being actually comical in their execution, which left me wondering how this lot could have ever been successful as a criminal gang. Perhaps that explains their worries about London’s reaction to their underperforming operation, the visit of the London man being sinister in his understated appearance, particularly when, leaving, he has a short chat with Maggie – who turns as being as powerful as Bill in the local hierarchy, as she has the key to glue the whole family together.

The sound track brilliantly underscores the changing moods of Down Terrace, from the folksy to the paranoid, whilst the camera work conveys initially a sense of claustrophobic unease becoming increasingly tense as the film progresses.

Down Terrace in many ways subverts and redefines the genre. Gone are the glamour and machismo, having being replaced by the shoddiness of kitchen sink social realism and a black humour typically British. 

Brilliantly sharp, witty and original.

Director: Ben Wheatley
Writers: Robin Hill, Ben Wheatley
Cast: Julia Deakin, Robert Hill, Robin Hill, Mark Kempner, Kerry Peacock, Kaly Peacock, David Schaal, Michael Smiley, Tony Way, Sara Dee
Original music: Jim Williams 

 At the ICA from July 30th to August 15th | ICA Cinema

Released in the UK on Friday 30th July 2010

Images and trailer © Metrodome Distribution.

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