The opening scenes of Paddy Considine’s directorial debut Tyrannosaur will be familiar to anyone who saw his BAFTA award-winning short film Dog Altogether, a grim slice of life from the North featuring the always excellent Peter Mullan as Joseph, a destructive alcoholic who encounters charity shop worker Hannah (played by Peep Show‘s Olivia Coleman), in a meeting which hints at the possibility of redemption. Fleshed out into a feature length movie, Tyrannosaur expands this premise into a dark and ultimately moving drama in which the trajectory of Joseph and Hannah’s lives becomes further intertwined.
On the surface, Tyrannosaur fits into the ouvre of “gritty realism” which has been a staple of British cinema ever since Mike Leigh and Ken Loach began serving up doses of social commentary in their TV dramas of the late 60s and early 70s. Filmed on location on an estate in Leeds, Considine’s film strives (and succeeds) for an authentic portrayal of life at the lower end of the social spectrum, a world of few opportunities, sporadic acts of violence motivated by feelings of desperation and a drive for survival; a world of bleak council estates and low-rent boozers effectively evoked by Eric Wilson’s desaturated photography.
From the beginning of Tyrannosaur, Joseph teeters on the brink of oblivion. After a drunken argument in a bookies he takes out his rage on his dog, kicking it to death; his temper flares up while signing on and he smashes the Post Office window; his irritation towards a group of boisterous young lads playing pool in his local pub leads to violence and retribution. It’s not surprising that he ends up seeking a reluctant solace in the company of Hannah, the Christian charity worker who prays for him as he cowers behind a rack of clothes in her shop. It’s a scene which exemplifies the emotional conflict between self-loathing and compassion which permeates the film, as Joseph finds himself reluctantly drawn to Hannah’s kindness and her readiness to see the good in himself that he is certain he lacks.
Hannah, too, is a more complex character than these first impressions give. Her faith in God seems to stem, at least in part, as a consequence of dealing with her abusive husband (an excellent performance from Eddie Marsan), who greets his wife’s sleeping form on the couch upon returning home late at night by urinating on her. There is a sense that both Hannah and Joseph are on the brink of becoming truly broken people – with no one else in their lives to offer them love or support they drift inexorably towards one another, an aspect of the narrative rendered all the more poignant by the film’s overarching tone of despair (although Considine is careful to offset this with flashes of deadpan humour and occasional moments of levity).
The screening I went to was followed by a Q and A session with Paddy Considine, in which he discussed some of the nuances of making Tyrannosaur, from finding the appropriate funding to choosing and working with the actors. Certainly, the praise Considine heaps upon the two leads is entirely justified while the assertion that this may well be Peter Mullan’s finest performance to date is no overstatement (which is saying something, as Mullan is one of the finest actors around). Considine points to watching Gary Oldman’s directorial debut Nil by Mouth while a student as a pivotal moment in his life leading to his career in movies, and its influence is apparent in both the aesthetic sensibility and dark subject matter of Tyrannosaur. Oldman was the first person Considine sent the finished script to, and he urged him to stick to his vision and not allow the financiers to force any changes. Considine’s commitment to steadfastly adhering to his own vision of how the film should be came through with force during the Q and A session: his commitment to artistic integrity rather than commercial viability more than just empty words, as Tyrannosaur attests to.
Paddy Considine hinted that he intends to work behind the camera as much as possible in future, moving away from acting, and while on the surface this is sad news – given that his acting career has already seen a number of truly memorable performances – nevertheless if Tyrannosaur is anything to go by his directing skills should more than compensate for a diminishing presence on the silver screen.