Film: It should never have been made

The War Zone Director: Tim Roth Starring: Ray Winstone, Lara Belmont, Freddie Cunliffe (98 mins; 18)

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.

ALEXANDER STUART INTERVIEW PAGE 10

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?