I’m not sure what it is about the British Isles that makes us so good at directing gloomy realist dramas. Maybe it’s our strictly ordered class system. Maybe it’s the weather. Whatever it is, Paddy Considine’s debut feature is in the grand tradition of downbeat British films. It’s well acted, beautifully made, sharply written, and sure to leave you with a lasting sense of melancholy.
Tyrannosaur is a film that starts with a dog being kicked to death right after the opening credits, and proceeds further into the abyss from there.
Peter Mullan stars as Joseph, a gruff, middle-aged Scotsman whose life appears to have undergone a disastrous derailment. Widowed for five years and suffering from a chronic addiction to alcohol, Joseph spends his life staggering from his house on a grotty northern estate to the pub and back, alternately menacing and being menaced by assorted local youths.
Then, in the midst of an existential crisis, Joseph stumbles into a charity shop run by the timid, devoutly Christian Hannah (Olivia Colman). Hiding behind a rack of second-hand clothes, and petulantly refusing to emerge, Joseph very gradually begins to forge a terse, uneasy friendship with Hannah.
It’s later revealed that, beneath the facade of Hannah’s apparently normal, comfortable suburban life, lurks an existence even more desolate and horrible than Joseph’s. Her husband James (Eddie Marsan) is one of the most violent, sadistic husbands ever committed to film, and Hannah’s helplessness in the face of it makes some scenes almost unbearable to watch.
Tyrannosaur is as unflinching and grimly realistic as British dramas get. Thankfully, there’s a sprightliness and dry wit to Considine’s script that lifts the film out of its darker moments, and Mullan and Colman are stunning in their respective roles. Joseph is a coiled spring of irrepressible rage, and even in his more tender scenes, the possibility that he might explode into violence is never far off. His volatility is illustrated in one great scene, in which he demolishes a shed with a sledgehammer – seen in context, this is far less ridiculous than it may sound.
As an actress some may associate with lighter, comedic roles in things like Peep Show or Green Wing, Olivia Colman is equally good as the battered, brave Hannah. She makes her character utterly believable throughout. Eddie Marsan, meanwhile, plays a convincingly sick coward, a weasel of a man who oscillates between cruelty and wheedling self-pity.
Paddy Considine’s direction is supremely confident. While a drama set on a dismal housing estate may not appear to offer much scope for cinematic verve, Tyrannosaurus is a beautifully shot film. There’s a close-up of the back of Joseph’s head, as he lounges like an exhausted animal on an armchair in his front garden, that looks like the surface of a planet. It’s both odd and beautiful.
There’s a sense of care and effort in Tyrannosaur’s every aspect, in fact, from the commitment of its actors to the thought that’s gone into its title. While Peter Mullan’s character makes poignant usage of the word, the literal meaning of Tyrannosaur – tyrant lizard – couldn’t be more appropriate for the film’s male characters, or its subject matter.
As a piece of filmmaking, Tyrannosaur sits next to Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth as a realistic depiction of domestic abuse and the terrible aftermath of violence. It’s certainly not a film that anyone will relish as an evening’s entertainment (as one person put it as we trudged out of the screening room, “It’s not a date movie, is it?”), but it’s almost impossible to fault the care and respect with which it’s been made.
A typically gloomy British piece of filmmaking though it is, Paddy Considine has crafted a film about a kind of cruelty that is all too common, and for that, he deserves much praise. The film won three awards at this year’s Sundance Festival, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets some attention at next year’s BAFTAs for its excellent writing, direction and authentic, heart-breaking performances.