Saturday, 15 November 2014

Down Terrace Review

Ben Wheatley is being heralded as a sort of saviour of British surrealism cinema as of late, but his first film Down Terrace is far from that. It's dark and gritty, but also funny and solemn. 

Just released from jail, father and son Bill and Karl (played by real life father and son Bob and Robin Hill) are patriarchs of a small crime family. Their business and life in Down Terrace is plagued with infighting. When Karl's estranged girlfriend claims to be carrying his child, Karl's added priorities create tension amongst his immediate family. Suspicions grow when the family believes there's an informant in their midst that could send them all to prison for a very long time.

This film is hard to categorize. While it is a story about a crime family, there's nothing very "gangster" about them. They don't dress or look the part. The three characters, Bill, Karl, and Maggie (Julie Deakin), Karl's mother, look and act like a regular blue collar family. They're not particularly convincing as gangsters (which may be why they're so well-hidden). For a good chunk of the movie, I had forgotten they were gangsters at all. Kind of like the TV show Roseanne, they bicker about regular family issues. Heavy with dialogue and awkward situations, the film plays almost like a comedic sitcom. It could have been about any family business and it would have worked.

There's realism and candour in the film's look and style. Characters talk about everyday things. Characters are often irritable, unkempt, and cumbersome. The camera is often hand-held, jerky, and frequently focuses on the mundane. The dialogue is often quite sharp and funny. It's certainly not glitzy like a gangster film.

There's virtually no action until the latter half of the film. But throughout the film it is engrossing and sentimental. Some parts take you by surprise. The film's focus on both the mundane and the surprising moments is what makes it work so well. Even during a conversation about music, or a simple cup of tea you never know what's going to come next. When the unexpected, violent moments hit, it reminded me that yes, this is indeed a "gangster" film. This results in some great dark humour.

The characters truly make this film. The dynamics between Bill, Karl, and Maggie are realistic, funny, dysfunctional, and sad. Bob Hill is particularly memorable as Bill, an ageing father who is frequently disappointed and putting down his son, Karl. Robin Hill expertly plays off his real-life father Bob (who plays Bill) as the constantly-frustrated Karl. Julie Deakin gives a complex, multifaceted performance as Maggie, the loving, sometimes scheming, mother, who may not always be as kind as she appears. The supporting cast, which consist of thugs who often do not act like thugs, bring proper amount of quirky, dry humour.



Given the expectations one may have of the frequently popular gangster genre, fans of that genre will likely be let down by this film while missing out on this film's more subtler, deeper story about family relationships. The initial pacing of the film may try some people's patience. It did me a little. I wished the film hadn't really characterized itself as a story about a crime family or a "gangster film" because it really isn't. I think it perhaps hurts the film somewhat—it makes it seem less real, maybe more gimmicky. This is closer to a family drama…with occasional violence thrown in. One may mistakenly go in expecting The Godfather. I can see this film re-imagined as a small crime story starring ordinary people—something akin to a Coen Brothers' film. These characters are odd, quirky, and dark in that vein.


Ben Wheatley has crafted a clever story that is always interesting thanks to its characters and dialogue. Wheatley's style of film making would interest me if he shot someone writing a review of one of his films... Wait... What? It's fantastic. Watch it.