What is the value of a painful story? When the Oscar nominations were announced on Tuesday, many pundits noted the absence of dark or tough films such as Melancholia, Shame and We Need to Talk About Kevin, and suggested that this year’s academy voters favoured work that was more “entertaining.”
But isn’t that an awfully narrow definition of entertainment? Aren’t people as entertained by stories that frighten, sadden or move them as ones that please, amuse or lull them? People lined up to scream at Psycho, cry at Love Story, gasp at Chinatown. Pain is a fact of life, and to me, watching people struggle with it exercises our empathy and makes us feel more connected.
Which brings me to Tyrannosaur, the first feature written and directed by Paddy Considine, the British actor known for, among others, In America, Hot Fuzz and The Bourne Ultimatum. (It opened in select cities on Friday, and could win a BAFTA Award on Feb. 12.) Describing its story of an unlikely relationship between Joseph, an angry widower (Peter Mullan), and Hannah, an abused woman (Olivia Colman), requires the marketing-averse words pain, sorrow and rage. A dog is kicked, a garden shed is demolished, a man is murdered. But there’s much more than darkness in it.
Tyrannosaur is based on a 2007 short, Dog Altogether, that Considine wrote and directed, which features the same characters and cast (and incidentally, won a BAFTA for live-action short). “But after I made it, it felt like the beginning of a bigger story,” he said in a phone interview last week. He sat down to write, and a week later – one week! – he had a finished script. “As if it was inside me needing to get out,” he says. “I suppose it’s my testimony.”
Though it’s not directly autobiographical, Tyrannosaur grew out of events and characters Considine witnessed growing up on a council estate (public housing) in the British Midlands from his birth in 1973 through the early 1980s. “We’re talking about a lot of years as a kid digesting dialogue through doorways, and being subtly aware of abuse and things going around my community,” he says. “In that era, there were a lot of men who’d taken pride in their work, but had it taken away from them when their industries closed down. Grown men who wanted to be providing, but were marginalized and felt insignificant.”
There was a lot of depression and alcoholism, but it was either tamped down and unacknowledged, or manifested in violence, Considine says: “Particularly men a generation before me, you don’t admit to other men that you feel weak or depressed or sad. You wake up some days and want to cry, but it’s a man’s world, so you act like men. But if you display rage, if you destroy something physically with your hands, it seems intrinsically linked to being a man. It seems okay.”
Considine’s escape was art. He loved music, “lived at the cinema.” As a teenager, he took a drama course, then studied photography at Brighton University. “I found an outlet I could project it [emotion]onto,” he says. “I could print it onto a piece of paper, or capture it through a lens. That was quite a revelation to me.”
He was searching for his Hannah when he met Colman, who was best known as a comedian in British series such as Peep Show and Rev., on the set of Hot Fuzz. “For some reason he thought I would be all right for it,” she says modestly, in a separate phone interview. “I loved Hannah the moment I read her. I didn’t see her as a doormat or victim at all. I thought she was incredibly strong, and a soldier. She suffered such torment every day, but she still wanted to love others. I wanted to do her justice.
“To play someone that multifaceted is the role of a lifetime,” she continues. “You dream of it, but you never get a script like that through the post. There was no way I wasn’t going to try it.”
During the 24-day shoot, Colman didn’t want to rehearse the most difficult scenes. “I wanted it to be as fresh and real as possible, and Paddy understood that,” she says. “He’d say, ‘You don’t have to say the words, just show the crew where you might want to go, so we can follow you.’” As well, he never shot more than two or three takes of those scenes, “which was liberating, because you knew you could really go for it,” Colman says. “If you think, ‘I’m going to have to do this nine times,’ you may hold back. Or by the eighth time, you can’t cry any more. He knew that feeling.”
Working with Considine also changed people’s perception of her: “I’m very grateful for my career in comedy, but I’ve always wanted to do drama, too, and now I’m getting those scripts,” Colman says. After Tyrannosaur wrapped, she played Meryl Streep’s daughter in The Iron Lady. “Being in scenes with Meryl Streep, I can die happy now,” she adds. “There’s no vanity, no ego. She would make everybody laugh, then go straight into it and do her thing, make people cry, then come straight out of it. She was just fun.” Colman did snort, though, when the crew referred to that film as low-budget. “I was thinking, ‘You haven’t got a clue what low-budget is,’ ” she says.
Colman is currently rehearsing Noel Coward’s Hay Fever in London’s West End; later this year she’ll appear in Hyde Park on Hudson, set in 1939, where she plays Elizabeth (the future Queen Mum) opposite Bill Murray as Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Yowza!) Considine is developing more scripts to direct. “Everything I’ve written since takes a bit longer than Tyrannosaur did,” he says, chuckling. For my final question, I ask each what value they find in painful stories.
“I can’t describe that; people have to say for themselves what that is,” Considine replies. “I will say that a film that starts with a guy kicking his dog, and then 90 minutes in, has a woman say to him, ‘I feel safe with you,’ and the audience believes it, I think that’s a victory. Filmmaking should challenge people’s perceptions.”
Colman, on the other hand, answers readily. “They show you that people have this extraordinary ability to survive, and to love,” she says. “The films that have stayed with me through my life have always been harder ones to watch. For two weeks after I saw Breaking the Waves, for example, I woke in the night and had to put cold water on my face, because I kept having dreams about it and crying. But it does more for your soul watching a film like that than something that’s easy. The roughest scenes in Tyrannosaur, those were the ones I enjoyed doing most. Does that sound bonkers?”
Not to me. Not at all.