It's another British gangster movie. I never knew we made so many. However a lot of them are pretty good and this one struck me as one of the best.
The cast is what makes it good, as indeed is usually the case. There's not a lot of variation in this genre. You can play around with psychological angles and themes, but at the end of the day the audience is going to be watching psychos hurting people for an hour and a half. They'll be stupid. They'll usually (although not always) have London accents. The film will be violent, vaguely unpleasant and guaranteed not to have a happy ending. The main things you need to know are:
- (a) who are the actors?
- (b) does the film have themes and psychological depth?
- (c) is it glorifying the violence?
This particular film gets those right.
I said the cast is what makes it good, which first and foremost means Sean Bean. Alex Kingston and Tom Wilkinson are outstanding too, but Bean is the one who's burning a hole in the screen. He's one of the best British gangsters I've seen, up there with Ray Winstone. He's frightening. When it comes to his relationship with Kingston, he's even shocking. That's a big word and it takes a lot to reach that level in a movie these days, but this film manages it. Violence on its own isn't enough. It's not the violence that makes Bean scary, although he most certainly isn't someone you'd want to cross. It's his broken personality, his irrational jealousy and the way he seems to have no boundaries when it comes to how you treat your wife. His character's just been released from a five-year jail sentence, you see, and you can see in Bean's performance that he's been accumulating resentment and bitterness for all of that time towards his friends on the outside who've been doing well. That's just subtext in most of his scenes, but it's also the key factor that makes him dangerous to be around.
It's an intelligent performance in a role that's giving him a lot to get his teeth into. However everyone is good, with Kingston and Wilkinson being every bit as strong in their roles as Bean is in his.
I think this is the first time I'd seen Alex Kingston outside Doctor Who. If nothing else, at least I now understand why people think she's hot. She is. (She's 36 here, instead of pushing fifty.) She also gets naked, which is a plus. However here she's been offered the kind of role that led her to give up her time off from ER and for a while commute between England and LA. Her character might be exposing her soul and you'll be horrified for her, then she'll turn on a sixpence and become monstrous. She says at one point that she only lashes out when she's in pain... and I'd already deduced that, but I don't think it explains everything. Hmmm. Alternatively, perhaps it does and she's in more pain than almost any human being before or since. That's possible too, actually.
Then there's Tom Wilkinson, who's an actor who's puzzled me. I don't doubt his talent. He's clearly at the top of his craft and this is a fine showcase for him. However what I don't understand is films like Rush Hour and Batman Begins
, where you've got this mean, scary villain being played by cuddly Wilkinson. (I have something similar with Tom Hanks.) Nevertheless, that said, he's being excellently used here as a cuddly-looking old gent who lives on a farm with his gay lover and for reasons of his own associates with undesirable people. Wilkinson shows a lot of range here. He's surprisingly good, in fact, impressive enough to change a few people's minds about him. He's certainly richer and more interesting than in those two Hollywood films I just mentioned, although I'd still maintain there are some kinds of scary he can't do. Sinister, yes. Intelligent menace, yes. Is he Sean Bean, no.
They're the reason you want to watch this film. Sean Bean, Alex Kingston and Tom Wilkinson. All three are easily doing enough to walk off with the movie and if it hadn't been for their co-stars, they would have.
Other matters would include the plot. The last twenty minutes aren't what I'd been expecting, which is good even if things occasionally aren't as scary or logical as they might have been. That's a pretty stupid way to try to kill Charlie Creed-Miles, for starters. The best defence I can think of is that it would seem to be their favoured modus operandi. I dare say this might make the film lose favour with the neanderthal crowd, although probably only a bit. I liked the ending, for instance.
Then there's the peculiarity that the main character, Creed-Miles, is merely the gang's driver and doesn't do much in the movie. This might look like an odd decision, but what it achieves dramatically is to put distance between us and the atrocities of Sean Bean and co. There's no implied pressure for us to identify with them. It makes the film easier to watch, since it's never fun to see a stupid, violently self-destructive protagonist, and it allows more moral perspective. It also allows more subtlety of theme, since Bean is clearly irredemable and the only character arc he'll be embarking on involves bullets.
Essex is a major feature of the film, as the title suggests. I've been reading interviews with the production team and they were very proud of having made Essex so central to their movie. They talk about the difference between London culture and the brash, flashy nature of Essex and in particular its criminals. It's quite interesting, actually. Unfortunately I can't vouch for any of this myself since I don't think I've ever visited Essex, but I did notice the garish nightclubs and I'm not going to disagree with the proposition that it feels a bit different to all those London gangster films. I don't know if I'd have necessarily noticed this for myself, but I approve of the fact that they made the effort.
It was inspired by true events, by the way. The real-life murders took place in Essex on 6 December 1995.
I liked this film. It's good. I approve of its decisions, I think it deserved to be better known than it is and I'm now more interested than before in watching Sean Bean films. I like what it's doing with shifting loyalties and the tensions of trying to keep in with two sides. In a genre that's looking ever more crowded the more I learn about it, this film stands out in the right way. It's not just good, but impressive.