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44 Inch Chest (2009,UK)

27/01/2012

Director: Malcolm Venville         Starring: Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, Joanne Whalley, Stephen Dillane

If you’re anything like me, the words “British gangster film” can be a bit of mixed blessing. You never really know what you are going to be let in for, the genre ranging from the cheeky, mockney shennanigans of Guy Ritchie to the foul mouthed, intense and terrifying menace of Sexy Beast. The presence of Ray Winstone is usually the sign of something a little more serious (even the “too clever for its own good” Love, Honour & Obey is a cut above the Lock, Stocks of this world) in this instance backed up by writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto who were also responsible for the aforementioned Sexy Beast.

Colin (Winstone) is distraught to discover his wife of twenty one years, Liz (Whalley), has met someone else and is leaving him. Almost catatonic with the emotional trauma, Colin (with the help of his gangster friends) duly bundle the other man into the back of a van and retire to a safe house to decide what to do with him. Whilst colin struggles with his anguish at his wife’s betrayal, his underworld colleagues egg him on to do what needs to be done so they can all get on with their lives.

Don’t be fooled by the usual trappings of the cockney gangster flick. Sure, the air is turned a deep shade of blue by the foul mouthed gangsters, there’s the usual inter-gangster banter about past acquaintances, the surly sense of humour that we have come to expect from the genre. But there the similarites more or less end.

Set almost entirely in a single location, the story unfolds in the run down front room of the abandoned building the mobsters clearly use as a safe house in which to go about their criminal activities. What is set up as a brutal revenge thriller though is really more an exploration of Colin’s increasingly fragmented psyche as he tries to come to terms with the destructive nature of his love for Liz. As usual, Winstone is phenomenal, running a gauntlet of emotions as Colin tries to figure out what it is he should do with his wife’s illicit lover, all the while suffering the barbs of his fellows, each of whom has their own opinions on what he should do and how he should do it.

Anyone expecting some kind of hard man revenge torture thriller is therefore going to be somewhat disappointed. Sure, it borders on the tortuous as we watch Colin suffer a mental collapse, desperately trying to reconcile the implosion of what he had believed was a happy and successful marriage but anyone hoping for kneecappings and punishment beatings is on to proverbial plums. Colin’s emotional pain is arguably far more uncomfortable to watch than any claw hammer inflicted nastiness anyway. In Scorsese’s Taxi Driver there is a famous scene when Travis Bickle is on the phone to Betsy who is in the process of breaking his heart when the camera pans away because his agony is too unbearable to watch. Here, the camera is held on Colin’s pain and we, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, are forced to watch every agonising minute of it.

The ensemble cast are excellent and it’s refreshing to see the likes of John Hurt and Tom Wilkinson in roles like these, far away from the more civilised characters they are probably better known for. Ian McShane is also very good, yet more evidence of how far he has come since his Lovejoy days as is the ever radiant Joanne Whalley as Colin’s matter of fact wife Liz. The single set production gives the whole thing the feel of a stage play rather than a film, an effect only occasionally interrupted by a flashback here or a cutaway there.

It’s not exactly what it says on the tin but I think as a film it’s all the better for it. The usual East End hard man revenge flick has been done to death and this more human, more fragile approach is a breath of fresh air to me in a genre overcrowded by assembly line mediocrity. The Krays this most certainly is not but it is a compelling look at the destructive power of love and the fragility of the human spirit, worth it for Winstone’s anguished performance alone.

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