Tyrannosaur (18)

Violence is heaped upon violence in this tale of woe.

Tyrannosaur (18)
dir: Paddy Considine

If the ingredients for a dish included jalapeños and Tabasco sauce, no one would expect the end product to be sorbet. Similarly, a film written and directed by Paddy Considine (who played bullies in A Room for Romeo Brass and My Summer of Love and a vengeful killer in Dead Man's Shoes) and starring Eddie Marsan (the unhinged driving instructor in Happy-Go-Lucky) and Peter Mullan (My Name Is Joe, Neds) has a minimal chance of being a jaunty bagatelle.

Tyrannosaur resembles a grim cinematic cousin of the "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch from At Last the 1948 Show, in which the characters outdo one another with tall tales of childhood deprivation. Here, Considine is in a competitive mood, building a structure that depends on each act of violence being more inevitable than the last. Tyrannosaur starts with a dog dying after it is booted in the ribs by its master, Joseph (Mullan). The film also ends badly for another mutt. In between, it is the human characters who receive punishment and dish it out.

Joseph is so upset by his dog's death that he destroys the shed where the animal lived and died. Then he sits in an armchair in the garden amid the debris, which feels more like a meta­phor than something that a person might do. Beyond Joseph's alcoholic brooding stretches an expanse of guilt, visible in every direction, over his mistreatment of his late wife. Asked whether he wishes she were still alive, he says no: he'd only treat her badly if she were.

Escaping the consequences of his latest violent outburst, he hides in a charity shop and attracts the sympathy of its manager, Hannah (the excellent Olivia Colman). As he crouches among the smocks and greatcoats, she reduces him to quiet sobs with her prayers. He needs saving and, in a piece of patterning worthy of a romcom, so does she.

A basket of baby dolls stacked on the counter hints at Hannah's inability to conceive, but that isn't the half of it. It's not the sadistic behaviour of her husband, James (Marsan), that is shocking, so much as the way it has been normalised by routine. He urinates on Hannah as she sleeps, which doesn't even merit a mention the next morning: she cleans up the mess while he pads around in his dressing gown. Joseph may be loud and brutish, but what you see is what you get, even if what you get is his fist in your face. James is a pretentious aggressor. He terrorises under the cover of respect­ability, intimidating Hannah in public with a throat-slitting gesture.

In a film that sets so much store by showing hardscrabble lives as they are supposedly lived, this distinction is important. Joseph, who wears his hatred on his sleeve, is deemed worthy of sympathy, while James is there to make us feel safer in Joseph's company. James's phony remorse makes Joseph's variety seem authentic. It comes down to nothing more sophisticated than that Joseph is the hero of a movie and James is the villain.

Marsan is terrifying, and we should feel grateful that he is willing to be vile in low-budget UK films after tasting high-life villainy in the Will Smith blockbuster Hancock. As with any movie monster, our belief in James's power derives largely from the reactions of others. It is no slight on Marsan to say that Colman's panicked pleading is so upsetting that we would be convinced of James's volatility even if he were played by Alan Titchmarsh.

But then, the cast is consistently stronger than the material, which comes close to sentimentalising suffering. Considine insists so fiercely on the preordained cruelty of working-class life that the audience would surely demand a refund if nothing horrific befell the chirpy young lad in Joseph's street.

The picture is superficially hard to watch, but, on the deepest level, it takes only the soft options, from the use of songs reiterating the characters' emotions to the simplistic decision to show their lives purged of joy. The influence of Gary Oldman's superior Nil By Mouth is strongly felt and Considine has even duplicated that film's occasional flaws. A victimised woman is again dropped from her own story at a crucial point and audiences are asked to endure once more the dreaded scene-that-explains-the-enigmatic-title.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 10 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The next great depression

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.