It seems that every couple of months, we’re presented with a new, independent, British film, a small-budgeted hopeful that puts a new spin on crime, drugs, and inner-city violence. Be it Harry Brown, Shifty or Shank, these films are getting made, and offer oddly occluded entertainment, halfway between ambition and blandness, edginess and political naivety.
At their best (Shifty), these films are starkly personal. At their worst (the end of Harry Brown, the whole of Shank), it comes off as committee-led Broken Britain bumbling.
And so, into the breach steps Down Terrace, another modestly budgeted crime flick from an up-and-coming filmmaker, namely director/co-writer/editor Ben Wheatley, who graduates from television work with this debut feature.
So far, so similar, but the big difference here is that we get a twisted, bold and fresh film that both impresses and delights. Taking cues from both kitchen sink and gangster genre tropes, Down Terrace focuses on a family living in a pleasant lower middle class house in Brighton.
The 34-year-old son, Karl (Robin Hill), still lives at home with his parents, Bill (Robert Hill) and Maggie (Julia Deakin). But while Karl is hounded by his mum and dad to paint the living room, this is only one of the household chores he has to handle, as Bill is a gangster, running a local club with a profitable sideline in drugs pushing and selling tat on eBay. However, as Karl is landed in court, and word comes from the Big Smoke that there’s a rat involved, the outfit is unravelled by paranoia. Once he’s acquitted, everyone is under scrutiny.
This is a gangster flick entombed in suburban, mundane Britain, with tea and cake instead of cocktails and coke, and faded settees and sickly, outmoded wallpaper taking the place of American opulence. Beer bellied goons flash their pistols, bought from the local market, and wild-eyed hitmen boast about the storage space in their hatchbacks and are saddled with their kids on the night of the contract.
Down Terrace is inventive and disarming, both as a cheeky, at times sickeningly morbid genre pastiche, and as a bloody musing on family and the crossover between generations. As a black comedy, it is packed with one-liners and well-observed (and well-subverted) moments. As a character piece, it is touching. And it is all held together by Wheatley’s down-to-earth direction, as Laurie Rose’s handheld camera peeks around door frames, and pirouettes around this lived-in space, keeping the focus grounded, domestic, internal.
This rawness is a perfect platform for the array of colourful characters and the cast of understated notables, with Robert Hill’s frazzled crook, who spouts zen aphorisms, soapboxes about LSD-laced revolutions and jams on his rattling acoustic guitar, providing an endlessly engaging stand-out.
As the narrative’s centre, co-writer Robin Hill’s performance is wonderfully nuanced. Karl is a man traumatised by his upbringing, emotionally stunted and knee deep in his family’s dirty doings. However, he is not without a little spine and ambition, even if it is just to start a family of his own with his girlfriend. Although, even such a basic goal proves tricky. This becomes deadly apparent, as the film’s brash humour is sheared away, and Karl attempts to take charge of his own life, with fatal results.
That Down Terrace has such a simple, effective framework, with age-old thematics and a killer set-up, is its immediate charm, but it is also executed supremely well. It is remarkably refreshing filmmaking, showing a great deal of wit and wisdom. It is the kind of British cinema that must be supported.
So, in a week where the future of the UK film industry is the cause of such debate, why not take a trip to Down Terrace?