*** SOME SPOILERS ***
In the opening scenes of the 1999 bare-bones British drama The War Zone, some effort is made to establish what might well be a realistic, relatively well-rounded family. There’s a whiff of familiarity that Dad is walking around the house without a shirt on. That heavily pregnant Mum’s waters break on the floor. The son, Tom, 15, sniggers, and they, with sister Jessie, 18, set off for the hospital.
Making his directorial debut, actor Tim Roth is not trying to pull the wool over our eyes here. Neither is screenwriter Alexander Stuart, adapting his own 1989 book. Families often look like what we might perceive as normal at any given time. Even once you’re invited through their door when you get a clearer picture of how the family dynamic is. Or might be.
The drive to the hospital is a longer, bumpier road than it would have been had they not left London for the secluded, rural life. Son Tom, we discover, is particularly perturbed – he has left his friends behind, and has little interest in welcoming a lifestyle in the countryside. On the way to hospital, Mum is crying out alarmingly, groans that turn into shrieks when the car spins off the road. Still, she somehow gives birth in the upturned car. Nobody is seriously hurt, thankfully, but it may be, for the audience, some warning lights.
Later, on a cold, windy shoreline, Dad and the two kids wander the rocky beach. Mum and new family member soon to join them from the hospital. At home, Dad tells amusing anecdote to the kids about when they were born. Tom and Jessie play-fight on the couch. And soon, Mum returns home with the newborn. The music tinkles as if all is swell with the family. It could almost be an advert of wholesome family life amidst the odd imperfection. Again, neither director Roth or writer Stuart are trying to trick us.
The first distinct sign of sexual attention in The War Zone comes into the light when a local girl, Tom and Jessie’s age, pops over to see the new baby. Her hair wet from the rain, Tom tries to slyly catch a peek at her breasts. More uncomfortably, he also spies a little at Dad embracing Mum in their bedroom. He is a frustrated teenage boy, sure, but to see is to wonder. What he sees having returned from the shop, casually glancing through the bathroom window, startles him. Pure disbelief hits him hard. Tom takes another look, just to be sure. We don’t see what he sees at that moment, but we know things change for him right there. The happy family perception is shattered and gone.
Tom’s dismaying, new-found vision of his sister Jessie, and Dad, is literally shown through his eyes. Polluted. His watching is now that of a tormented youth. His generally moody exposition goes some way to hiding his shock to the rest of his family. Young actor Freddie Cunliffe delivers a performance of such subtle, simmering disgust, you wonder when he will erupt. When Tom confronts Jessie about it she is not giving much away in her answers. As an audience member, you may well be distracted by the fact she is brushing her hair without a top on. When the subject arises again between them, the siblings fight – not so playful this time. How can it be, now?
Finding photographs of Jessie posing nude, she suspects (or already did so) what we may now suspect, that Tom’s anger also comes from jealousy. Laying naked (Tom had burst into her room while she was sleeping), she taunts him in a sexual nature, and he leaves. Out of his depth. How is a 15 year-old boy meant to handle all of this? Jessie game is spawned from pure fear, and an unwavering, but abstract protection of her brother. The loyalty of their bond in The War Zone is the strand that seems to be the strongest in both of them dealing with this.
Dad’s behavior is a kind of twisted jealousy and certainly not a protective father image. He’s not going to approach the subject directly, no, but his suspicion about Jessie’s boyfriend Nick (a somewhat baby-faced Colin Farrell), and then Dad’s outburst when she arrives home later is clearly irrational, and the actions of a guilty man. Like a deer fighting back against a bear, when he attacks Jessie she gives as good as she gets, hurling her hands at him. Mum breaks it up, but we are left to see the look on Jessie’s face, one of piercing, lingering hate.
Actress Lara Belmont is astonishing throughout, but the glare of detest she gives her dad could easily be real, eyes all rattled and face puffy red. Her Jessie has to hold the fragile emotional line between the terrified victim of sexual abuse and the many forms and faces of hiding the despicable truth. She later, in a harrowing moment of defensiveness, asks Tom if he gets off on all of it, before taking a lighter flame to her breast. “Do you want to hurt me? Will it make you feel better?” – Jessie inflicts a kind of shameful retaliation for her Dad through Tom. And it’s upsetting to say the least. Belmont’s performance is as raw and deep as documentary footage too real to make the final cut. So may examples to pick from, but one revelationary scene towards the end, Jessie is trembling, devastated at the impending exposure of the awful truth.
Tilda Swinton, as always, has her moments, but knows better as an accomplished actress to allow the horrors of what Mum doesn’t know speak for themselves. While Mum is lacking sleep from looking after the baby, she is missing emotional events we perhaps would rater she never finds out about. When Tom Tom tells Mum about Dad “Don’t trust him. Keep him away from the baby.”, Swinton turns white, immediately shook out her new-baby trance.
And Ray Winstone is chillingly good once again, a complete disgrace of a human being, denying his guilt to the very end. A different level of unacceptable abuse here, but the similarities are obvious with the brutish bastard in Nil By Mouth (directed of course by Tim Roth’s buddy Gary Oldman – I would love to see their collective discussions on these films).
A film of integral looks you might say. How a teenager views a changing world. An unseeable awfulness. How a sister has to look her brother in the eyes, knowing what he knows. A Mum whose eyes are diverted by the newest child of the family. A Dad glared at from his ashamed children. The barriers of vision torn down. Home-life, however you knew it before, unravel before our eyes. Before their eyes.
The closing meltdowns are terrifying on varying levels. Each member of the family forced into a corner, scrambling for a way to cope. Roth directs with such a dark sense of grit between his teeth – dents, cracks and all. When it is Jessie that comforts her little brother in the final moments, it take your breath away. The War Zone kicks you to the ground, and keeps its foot pressed firmly on your throat. When it releases, you get your breath back. Just about.