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
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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