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The War Zone

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: The War Zone

Starring: Ray Winstone, Tilda Swinton
Director: Tim Roth
Rated: NR
RunTime: 99 Minutes
Release Date: January 1999
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Kate Ashfield, Lara Belmont, Freddie Cunliffe, Aisling O'Sullivan

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Tim Roth's "The War Zone" implicitly presents one of the best reasons I can imagine for having a dog instead of children. What's more you should bring up the pup in the big city, not in the sticks. What is particularly astounding about this treasure of a movie is that Roth, a superb actor, has not had previous experience in directing, and the two principal performers are making their debut as well. If only Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles were alive today, how they would enjoy this testament to the strength of their tragic visions...visions emulated by the great Eugene O'Neill in at least one of his epic family dramas and to a lesser extent by Tennessee Williams. While the movie focuses on a cement bunker in England's rural Devon area, the story does not take place on a wide-open battlefield like Steven Spielberg's monumental "Saving Private Ryan," but in the area in which all wars really start: the family.

The movie, which deals with incest in a far more graphic way than "Spank the Monkey" and with family abuse in a sparer manner than Gary Oldman's "Nil by Mouth" (which also featured this movie's Ray Winstone), considers incest so unspeakable that a good portion of its 98 minutes is taken with silence. Nor is incest pushed into the background as in the wonderful movie by Atom Egoyan, "The Sweet Hereafter," in which the family crime comes to the fore only in the ultimate rebellion by the ambivalent daughter. The silent portions are the more telling ones, and Roth takes advantage of these moments to capture the bleak English countryside, which is displayed as dark, cloudy, rainy, and altogether depressing. There is method to Roth's minimalism. He wants the audience to concentrate on the sexual tension that is omnipresent in the pathetic household headed by a man called simply Dad (Ray Winsome), his wife (Tilda Swinton), and their two children, Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) and Jessie (Lara Belmont). You can feel the uneasiness as dad prances about the homey cottage in the buff, while cinematographer Seamus McGarvey--who generally portrays the activities at a middle distance--captures a nude mom in her final stage of pregnancy.

The real center of Alexander Stuart's screenplay, which is based on his novel, is the sullen, acne-botched Tom, a 15- year-old who resents the family's move from London to a remote area of Devon--where he has not been able to make new friends. Tom vaguely suspects that his sister, Jessie, is having an incestuous relationship with their father--a situation that should be all but obvious to Mom save for her total attention to her newborn third child. Happening upon the bunker in which the sordid acts take place, he photographs the two, as the audience is made privy to the father's grunts and the daughter's cries of pain. (Roth wants us in the audience to guess the young woman's motivation in consenting to this rape, as nothing in her attitude indicates that she--unlike Atom Egoyan's Risa Walker--is sanctioning the deed.)

Except for a surreal car crash near the opening of the film, there is little broad physical action and even less talk. A Hollywood melodrama would have had Jessie and Tom shouting from the rooftops, but here every emotion is minimalized, British style. Tim Roth has learned the lesson at the very beginning of his directing career that understatement often conveys more devastating emotion than bellowing. The excellent online film critic James Berardinelli reports that in one screening of this difficult-to-watch movie, at the Toronto Film Festival, a man left his seat shouting that he could not take it any more, headed for an exit intending to pull the fire alarm, and after twenty minutes was calmed down by Tim Roth himself. (Should we suspect that this individual sees himself in the film?)

Family dysfunction has come a long way since the sickness was trivialized in the TV sitcom "Married, With Children," and while "The War Zone" will not likely be a commercial blockbuster (in New York it is playing exclusively in a single theater), the picture is not to be missed by film buffs and by a mature audience with the luck to be near the right theater.

Copyright 1999 Harvey Karten

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