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Film: Who's the daddy now?

Tim Roth's directing debut focuses on incest. Is he pointing at a hidden past or exploiting a controversial topic?
The War Zone plays out against the stark landscapes of wintry Devon. Its characters - a family of displaced Londoners - sit scrutinising each other inside a blank, Play School-type house (door, window, chimneys); physically close but emotionally estranged. You feel that each one is ultimately unknowable to the others. They hold secrets, forge clandestine alliances. They constantly threaten to confound you.

Ditto Tim Roth. The man's directing debut has already turned a lot of preconceptions upside down. On screen the actor has become known for his more flamboyant turns: the dandy villain in Rob Roy, the gurning convict in Everyone Says I Love You, the gut-shot cop in Reservoir Dogs. Off-screen, early interviews established his reputation as a laddish extrovert: sneering, strutting, livin' it large. And yet here comes The War Zone - based on Alexander Stuart's incest-themed novel - and it is still and spartan and quiet. And here comes Roth, and he's citing Bergman, Truffaut and Tarkovsky as influences. He drops shimmering clues that the film is autobiographical - that he himself was abused as a kid - and then turns shtum when you stoop down to pick them up.

"Draw your own conclusions," he says. It has become his virtual mantra throughout a heavy round of press interviews.

Roth, then, turns out to be a bit of a riddle, with the controversy surrounding The War Zone merely the latest instalment in an ongoing saga. Like most actors, Roth operates from behind a series of masks. His early roles in Alan Clarke's Made in Britain (as a Nazi skinhead) and Mike Leigh's Meantime (NHS-specced nerd) led this middle-class actor (mum an artist, dad a journalist) to be confused for a hard-arse proletarian. Later, a move Stateside to act in films like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction prompted US media to mistakenly tip him as one of America's hottest up-and-comers. Ray Winstone (who plays the dad in The War Zone) reckons Roth's arrogant swagger is a pose, while Nic Roeg (who directed him in Heart of Darkness) says he's actually very shy. A few years back, Roth's sister Gill wrote a piece in the London Evening Standard where she claimed that "the press invented a tough, street-cred persona that I could never reconcile with his middle-class roots. The Tim I knew would rather have his head in a book than in someone's face."

So Roth enters the room as a mix, a mongrel, with his tattooed arms, hooded eyes and clipped, precise voice. He happily admits that his early incarnation (still lingering in some quarters of the public consciousness) was a fake, but one which was useful in getting him work. He says that the sort of films he was making in America were starting to bore him. At 38, he is entering his third incarnation (the auteur-director); trying it on for size and seeing if it suits him. "I like that I've made a very formal, cinematic film; not gone in there with a hand-held camera on 16mm, the sort of film that everybody else seems to be making," he tells me. "I wanted it to be beautiful. Because I thought it would be more painful that way."

The War Zone is certainly an elegant and assured piece of work. Confident enough not to resort to showy pyrotechnics, Roth cuts the film to a slow, stately rhythm and leaves room for some majestic acting, most notably from untried Lara Belmont and Freddie Cunliffe as the tale's teenage brother and sister. Roth handpicked them both from obscurity, and radiates a fatherly glow in their achievements. "I didn't want people looking at them and thinking `Oh yeah, they were lovely in that TV thing I saw', because then they wouldn't be my children. I wanted the audience to have never seen them before, and to have nothing clouding their vision. And also," - his voice goes hushed - "they were good. I'm proud of them."

Meantime, he instigated significant changes to Stuart's original manuscript. The tale's time-frame moved from summer to winter while Belmont's character - sexually active and compliant in the book - was re-cast in a more sympathetic light. "Yeah, I was going to have her seducing her father, then I thought I might end up being an abusive director. If you'd had that happen in your life, would you really want to be told that it was your fault, that you were the abuser? It would have looked sexist and misogynistic."

As it stands, Roth claims that the finished product gives as true a representation of sexual abuse as we are likely to witness. "People who had been abused were working on the script," he says. "And they were going `Well that's right, and that's right, and that's not'. So we had our bullshit spotters. And bless `em."

But that seems to be implying that there is a uniformity to the abuse experience; that it all follows the same pattern. "No, not at all. This is only about one relationship, but it has to be true to the form. And anyone who has been abused will recognise this film for what it is." Which leads us inevitably to the million-dollar question. Has Roth himself been a victim of abuse?

"Draw your own conclusions," he says, slippery-smooth. "These questions will follow you all your life."

But why the ambiguity? Why risk lifting the lid on a Pandora's Box of dodgy speculation? "I don't care about that. I want it ambiguous because it's a huge ambiguous area." So he's not saying? "About whether I was abused or not? Draw your own conclusions." That's difficult, I say, when I don't know you. At this, Roth pounces: "Exactly." Which, of course, leaves us none the wiser.

Still, let's look at it - this curious little parlour game. Be generous and you'll conclude that Roth is genuinely exorcising some ghosts with The War Zone. He's put the evidence on celluloid and is understandably reluctant to revisit them with every stray journo who happens along. Be cynical and you'd wonder if this whole was-I-or-wasn't-I? routine was just a macabre means of plugging his picture. And if so, we're all implicated in a particularly tawdry piece of media flirtation: Roth for playing the abuse card (however coyly), and us hacks for scrabbling about trying to take a peek, to get the dirt, to come away with the scoop.

Far safer, then, to stick with what's up on the screen. Because at day's end, The War Zone suggests a fertile new direction for a man who, alongside old cohort Gary Oldman, seems to represent a kind of crucial missing-link within British drama. Like Oldman, Roth started out during the last gasp of social-realism, when Alan Clarke and Mike Leigh and Ken Loach wore still making one-off dramas for the BBC. "Yeah, I got really lucky to be on the tail-end of that," Roth admits. "And then the government shut it down. There were people at the BBC who commissioned great stuff, they had their eyes open. And because it was politically critical, they were got rid of. So now it's another police series, or documentaries about pets." In the meantime, homegrown cinema was similarly suffering, slipping into a twilight realm of costume-dramas and duff Hollywood copycats. So Roth got out, went Stateside where the work was, and effectively rebranded himself. He worked with Robert Altman (on the undervalued Vincent and Theo) and Woody Allen, and an untried video-store clerk by the name of Quentin Tarantino. He became a bridge between the old and the new; the raw muse of kitchen-sink Britain turned player-of-choice within left-field American cinema. It was a brilliant feat of survival.

Yet now he's back again. Because Tim Roth is currently contemplating a move back to his native London. He's grown nervous of LA, fearful of America's mushrooming gun problem and outraged by the NRA ramblings of men like Charlton Heston ("and he's such a bad actor"). He's turned on by directing and ambivalent about acting ("I'm finding out if the buzz is still there."). He's about to shoot a film with European auteur Werner Herzog; he's contemplating another stab at directing, and he's optimistic about the state of film production in Britain. One might even say that with The War Zone, Tim Roth has come home again, though exactly how close to home is anyone's guess. Oh, go on. Draw your own conclusions.

`The War Zone' opens on 3 Sept