It's another bleak night on a Leeds council estate when, stumbling out of his second home at the pub, a middle-aged drunk proceeds to kick his dog to death. Such is the upbeat opening of Tyrannosaur – after that, things get a little grim. Of course, steeped in the tradition of kitchen-sink realism, the Brits do grim quite well. No exception, this version takes the form of an unlikely love story, where two very different souls share common ground over the only emotions they can feel: that linked tandem of fear and anger.
Joseph (Peter Mullan) immediately regrets his wanton cruelty in dispatching the dog. Indeed, his regrets are many, all thoroughly drowned in a daily succession of pints. He's the keep-your-distance man that every city breeds, muttering obscenely to himself, wrapped tightly in his rage and his loneliness, striking out and getting struck. One afternoon, Joseph blusters into a charity shop to vent his spleen on Hannah (Olivia Colman), a nice Christian woman who hails from the right side of the tracks. Her offer to pray for him, "You are a child of God," meets with his polite decline: "He ain't my (expletive) Daddy."
So the very different souls meet and, under the ruthless stewardship of writer/director Paddy Considine, the rest of the film is devoted to unearthing the similarities between the pathetic drunk and the proper lady – turns out they're multiple and startling. The first is predictable enough. Returning to her large manor house, Hannah unwinds not with pints of beer but with glasses of wine, then falls asleep on the couch. That's where her husband James (Eddie Marsan) sees her, and what he does next can't be repeated here. What he does later, and often, can: The man is a wife-beater, laying into her, yes, like a dog. After the hideous fact, he too is contrite: "I'm sorry. It's not the real me."
But it is the real him and she knows as much. So does Joseph when, apologetic himself, he revisits the shop to find her with a black eye. Afterward, as the husband looms menacingly again, Hannah's Christian forbearance turns to righteous anger, and she lashes out at him physically, only to have the violence repaid a hundredfold. Bloodied, battered, she makes her way to Joseph's home, where their ostensible differences get stripped bare until only the shared fear and anger remain – a connection, definitely, but hardly a bridge to a healthy relationship.
Admittedly, the fact that Hannah has nowhere else to go does strain our credulity. In pursuit of its theme – violence cuts across class boundaries – Considine's script sometimes gets overly schematic. And his sub-plots are a bit too vigorous in upping the grimness quotient. Joseph has a foul-mouthed neighbour who clearly favours his pit-bull over his young son, another situation that bodes awfully ill. Then there's the old drinking buddy clinging to life and an oxygen mask, a finale that gives rise to the one scene in the film that radiates warmth – alas, it's also the one scene that smacks of sentimentality.
Nevertheless, the principals are superb, with Mullan and Colman doing a masterful job of inhabiting their separate but equal prisons. Confined together, Joseph and Hannah circle each other warily. Whether victim or villain, both have been marked by violence, and they literally shrink from any human touch. Years of living with their fate has registered on their faces – with him, his eyes are blank; with her, the mouth is tightly pursed. Still, there's a mutual and flickering hope to escape that fate into a world of richer emotions – if not love then perhaps empathy, always a good place to start.
I won't give away the particular significance of the title. It's enough to know that Tyrannosaur is replete with all manner of rough beasts slouching toward something. For most, it's something bad; but for a few, behind the snarl and deep within, it's something better – a profound wish to feel the touch of civility, and be tamed.
- Directed and written by Paddy Considine
- Starring Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman
- Classification: 14A
- 3 stars