It’s been a good year for Peter Mullan. His superb Neds, released earlier this year, was a tough, semi-autobiographical tale of growing up in Glasgow and pulled no punches. Mullan’s character here, Joseph, is built from similar stock. Transplanted to Leeds, Joseph is alone. His wife has died, and he’s just kicked his dog to death in a post-bookies fury. If I were to tell you that by the end of the movie you’re going to sympathise with him you might not believe me.
He bumps into Hannah (Olivia Colman) by accident. She’s a charity-shop worker, a Christian who sees redemption in everyone. “What do you know about anything?” Joseph snarls at her. “You live in the posh part of town. You know nothing about me.” This is true. However, she could easily counter — but doesn’t, because she’s a good girl — that he knows nothing about being pissed on by his partner while asleep on the couch, or about being treated as nothing more than a punching bag.
That’s James’ role, you see. After, presumably, being told what to do all day while at work, James comes home and takes it out on his wife. He’s played by Eddie Marsan, whose impressive résumé continues to grow. James thinks he’s got it made on two counts. First, he can express contrition to his wife, gently nudging her to remember him as he was, not as he is now. Secondly, she’s a forgiving Christian. Sure, he beats her, but he can be saved. Only, as we watch, we realize he can’t and will never be.
Joseph and Hannah, despite themselves, become friends. Joseph doesn’t really do friends unless they’re hard-drinking, cussing, male friends, but Hannah’s persistence and an eventual realization that they have more in common than they originally imagined draws them together. Not in a soppy way: Tyrannosaur doesn’t do soppy. They instead function together. It’s an animal thing, which is appropriate given the neighborhood Joseph lives in, a neighborhood all too familiar to me. I see it every day as I drive, protected from the fact that soon I’ll be several miles away and safely behind a double-locked door. Joseph’s street is a street where the neighborhood kid gets knocked about by latest boyfriends of single mothers. Every external shot in Tyrannosaur, I noticed, had litter strewn all over the place. I grew up in a council estate; my parents still live there. It’s not the same there now as it was when I was young, and someone, some day, needs to do something about it.
Joseph, whose anger issues were not helped at all by the death of his wife five years ago, now has someone other than himself to think about, and he’s not thrilled at the prospect. When Hannah arrives with a black eye, retribution seems to be the order of the day and in another writer’s hands it might have been. Writer/director Paddy Considine doesn’t go down that route, much to my surprise, but instead goes about his stylish business. Without the merest hint of a steadicam (another great surprise, seeing as they’re part and parcel of kitchen sink dramas it would appear), Considine concentrates on the individuals and the transitions they make. There are subtle themes (don’t judge people on first appearances would be one of them) but generally this is about coping and about the primal tenderness we all have in us, however well hidden it may be.
Mullan has never been better. We all know he can do hard man because, simply, he’s been doing it for years. Here, though, he’s so much more than that, his face full of expression and reaction. From a meerkat-like look round when someone calls his name in the pub, to staggering home worse for wear afterwards, Mullan nails everything perfectly. The only thing stopping me from suggesting that this is the male acting performance of the year would be that (and it might be quite rude of me to say so) it might not have been much of a stretch for him to play such a role. Colman, who I’ve only previously associated with comedy (she worked with Considine on Hot Fuzz), is possibly even better. Initially just a do-gooder – see? Don’t judge people by first impressions — Hannah’s life is even worse than her hardened new friend. Colman plays with just the right amount of dignity regardless of her circumstances. Whether being cornered by a vile man or denying her abuse to Joseph, she is real.
Expert direction, two superb leads and a gritty but realistic outlook, Tyrannosaur is unquestionably one of the films of the year. I’ve written far more than usual about it, but Paddy Considine’s debut film deserves to be discussed rather than dismissed. This is gut-wrenching honesty, and (three years after the fact) fully vindicates my dismissal of the Brit film Harry Brown, a film some called realistic in its portrayal of urban decay. It wasn’t. Tyrannosaur is.