Film: It should never have been made

The War Zone Director: Tim Roth Starring: Ray Winstone, Lara Belmont, Freddie Cunliffe (98 mins; 18)
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The Independent Culture
Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), a sullen, friendless teenager, has been uprooted with his family to a dank and underpopulated backwater in Devon. One day, while mooching around, he chances to see his older sister Jessie (Lara Belmont) sharing a bathtub with their father (Ray Winstone). Since we in the audience aren't privy to the sight, our view of Tom's character is clouded for a time by uncertainty as to whether he's actually telling the truth. Not for long, though. Some days later he spies on them again, and this time so does the camera.

I haven't read the novel by Alexander Stuart on which Tim Roth's The War Zone is based, but it's a deeply unsatisfactory and, for me, rather unpalatable film. Not because of the dramatisation of incest itself - it's a subject like any other - but because Roth, having opted for a mimetically naturalistic approach, has had to simulate that incest. In the film's most graphically explicit scene, the naked, bawling Jessie is penetrated from behind by her father while the camera looks on dispassionately.

It's a shocking moment, rendered all the more so by the cinema's inherent realism. By that word "realism", though, I'm no longer referring to Roth's directorial style but to the basic realities of the film-making process. What is shocking - to me - is the fact that an adolescent actress was obliged to strip, hunker down on all fours and let a middle-aged actor (who, of course, remains clothed throughout) rub his groin suggestively against her buttocks. If The War Zone had been more compelling, I might not have thought of that as I watched the scene; but it isn't, and I did.

If, as I say, it isn't compelling, it's because it makes precious little sense, either dramatically or psychologically. Incest is an immemorial theme if ever there was, and not all the implications and connotations with which its antiquity has encrusted it relate to the strictly physical act. Yet Roth appears so indifferent to its history and literature that the motivations of his characters are, at least to those ignorant of the source novel, totally incomprehensible.

In every single scene except that in which he sodomises his daughter, Winstone plays his character as a bluff, harassed, self-made man, a bit rough round the edges, maybe, but loyally attentive to his wife (a barely recognisable Tilda Swinton) and a decent, not unkindly parent to his offspring. Were it not for his accent, he could be transplanted intact into an Australian soap. Then, without the slightest hint of his latent pathology, he's suddenly revealed to us as a monster, an incestuous pervert. Talk about Jekyll and Hyde! And I'm afraid it won't do to argue, as Roth has done to interviewers, that most paedophiles in life impress their neighbours as outwardly average human beings, normal in everything save their sexuality. The point of art is surely that, to coin a phrase, it reaches the parts life cannot reach.

Jessie is equally opaque - spunky, lively, intelligent in every scene except, again, the one is which she's sodomised. Then she becomes a snivelling slave to her father's lust. Why? Why in heaven's name does she put up with it? It's possible to imagine answers to that question, and they may well be in Stuart's novel, but Roth's film (scripted by Stuart) remains mum on the matter. He has spoken of his fascination with the contemplative cinema of Bergman and Tarkovsky, the cinema of "stillness and silence", as he eloquently puts it. Yet he cannot be unaware that there is, to the films of those two inimitable masters, a spiritual, even transcendental dimension which cannot coexist with a narrowly behaviourist view of humanity.

The War Zone is well made, elegtantly framed in CinemaScope. Roth is fine at details - the snug domesticity of the lonely, ramshackle Devon cottage, for example, is extremely credible - and, although he's unlikely to thank me for the comment, he might have made a more persuasive film (it's his first as a director) had he been less ambitious. But the failure of this one raises a wider question. Why, oh why, as columnists say, do ambitious British films have to be so relentlessly glum?

To be sure, The War Zone is about incest, no laughing matter. But one has to wonder what prompted Roth to choose such a project in the first place or why the imagery is shrouded with bleakness from the very opening shot. Even the straightforward sex - there's a scene in which one of Jessie's acquaintances endeavours to deflower Tom - is as sweatily po-faced as that, now all of four decades old, in Room at the Top and This Sporting Life. (Since my own sexual escapades, such as they were, had tended to be exuberant, giggle-inducing affairs, I recall, when I saw those films, worrying that I was doing it wrong.)

It would seem that the British cinema has decided, once and for all, that its most congenial mode is naturalism. So be it. But it's not a trivial question to ask why naturalism has to be so dour and drab, so bereft of wit and colour and fantasy. British television has long since shaken free of the funereal influence of Lord Reith, so why can't our films crawl from beneath the shadow of their own Reith, the Scottish-born John Grierson, a founding father of the British documentary movement and a man for whom a film was virtually worthless unless it addressed some harrowing social abuse? Yes, Grierson's intentions were good, but it's those good intentions of his which have paved the road to what I for one cannot help thinking of as the hell of contemporary British cinema.