Film: Let's face it, villains ain't wot they used to be

The big picture: When it comes to the East End setting of her new gangland movie, director Antonia Bird may well know her way around the manor but her grasp of character is little short of criminal

Face Antonia Bird (18)

You have to be remarkably confident that your film stretches or transcends its genre before you start sniping at the competition in the middle of your plot. In Antonia Bird's Face, the hero Ray (Robert Carlyle), who has led a successful raid on a security depot in Hounslow, calls round on another of the gang, who may be responsible for a double-cross. Julian (Philip Davis) is playing with his baby, inhaling essence of infant ("I can't get enough of this"), and watching a cops-and-robbers film on the television. He gives his professional opinion: "I don't like crime films... they never show the criminal in a good light... the actors play us thick."

On the question of thickness, this is the same Julian who thought it was a good idea, just when the gang was dividing the spoils, high on adrenaline and with weapons to hand, to put in an inflated expenses claim, charging pounds 40,000 for some smart yellow overalls, some mobile phones and a battering ram.

Another member of the gang, come to that, is Stevie (Steven Waddington), an innocent whose IQ is anything but his strong point.But then he's there to indicate the hero's IQ in a different sense - his Idealism Quotient - since Ray looks after Stevie (who even lives in his house). Ray is the criminal shown in a good light, but that light is very artificial.

The director has lived in London's East End for 20 years, and has many acquaintances with whom you could sit down and have a drink without suspecting for a moment that they were involved in crime. Ronan Bennett, who wrote the script, was in Brixton prison on remand in 1978 and 1979, but he hasn't consciously chosen to make a period piece.

Ray turns to crime at a later period. His mother Alice (played by Sue Johnston) is politically active, to put it mildly, and until he's 24 the barricades are a second home to Ray too. Then he witnesses the brutal policing of a "Coal Not Dole" protest, and is converted to a sort of nihilism. If the police can beat peaceful protesters, then nothing means anything, and he might as well rob security depots.

He is a nihilist with a conscience none the less. During the Hounslow job, we see him under pressure, his gun trembling, and during the film he has bleached-out flashbacks not only to the police brutality of a decade ago but to the crime of the day before, as if he was still bothered even after so many years to be behaving hardly better than the police (the raiders are armed, but not by intention violent).

Despite Ray's estrangement from his mother - it would take more than a few truncheons to shake her convictions - his girlfriend Connie (Lena Headey) is an intimate of hers, a regular protest mate. It isn't made clear how this unlikely situation came about, who met whom first, and Connie is all too obviously there to show that Ray hasn't given up on his old values, whatever he thinks. Connie works in a residential home for adolescent kids, so in her professional life as well as in her free time she embodies a politics of hope.

At first it seems impossible that this luminous activist, this secular angel, should not know that her boyfriend is a professional criminal, but when it turns out that she does indeed know, this also seems impossible. It isn't clear whether they have been a couple for a long time or a short; plausibility is violated either way. Their early dialogue is there to inform the viewer about the background rather than to represent anything a pair of lovers (even this mismatched) would say to each other. She: "Why don't you come with me to the demo tomorrow?" He: "Oh, Connie, you know that's not me." "Ah, but it was once."

Seemingly Connie has kept to herself her dissatisfaction with Ray's way of life until the evening after the Hounslow raid. Then she tells him that he's "better than that". He replies that at least the gang members look out for one another. The two of them go home to his house, and embrace by the light of a real fire which seems to have been kindled supernaturally, as much a defiance of the laws of nature as of the Clean Air Act.

In the morning he apologises to her: "I didn't mean to have a go at you. I know you're right. I'd be lost without you." It's an absurd declaration - what does it mean that Connie's right? That he's going to give the 60 grand he stole the day before to the residential home where she works? It's a moment of false resolution, placed there specifically to be disrupted by a banging on the front door, an unskilled scriptwriter's formula for building pathos and attention.

The director's post code may be impeccably authentic, but she needs to cast a more critical eye on the screenplays she chooses if she is to match her best past work (the television film Safe). Her touches on Face are up to the moment and even stylish: the soundtrack is full of blurred and sombre beats, while the yellow overalls worn by the gang for the raid make the job look designed as much as planned. But this is only top dressing when the script is so full of howling cliches.

Peter Vaughan puts in a cameo appearance as Sonny, an old-style criminal released from prison just in time to lament the passing of the old-style criminal ("Prison really is going downhill"). A corrupt policeman explains himself with a speech out of some demonic phrasebook of the 1980s: "Money goes everywhere these days... there are no public servants. There is no public service."

And no such thing as society, presumably. The rhetoric of the film is curiously stranded in time, an anti-Thatcherism trapped in the Thatcher era. Perhaps this point of view will be more eloquently expressed in the television film that Antonia Bird is developing on the subject of the Miners' Strike than it is in Face, where the supreme indictment of the past couple of decades seems to be that they made decent, hard-working criminals go to the bad.

On general release from today

Sport
footballLIVE City face Stoke, while Warnock returns to Palace dugout
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + echSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

    Clinical Negligence Solicitor

    Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

    Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

    £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

    Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

    Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone