The bells, the bells! The Bow Bells, that is. Wild Bill, a confident first feature that sets the former actor Dexter Fletcher on the frog-and-toad to a promising filmmaking career, is a right proper bleedin’ ding-dong and no mistake. Well worth a butcher’s. Sorry, just to check: have I conveyed sufficiently that Wild Bill is not only set in London’s East End, but that it has that area’s cheerfully scuzzy atmosphere clinging to it like cigarette smoke? One is simply never certain if one’s subtle messages are being successfully transmitted.
Even if my understated wordplay has not given the game away, the cast should do the trick: Neil Maskell (Kill List), Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), Andy Serkis as a drugs kingpin with creepy leather gloves and a faraway stare. Lots of other likely lads whom you’ve seen brandishing a cosh or a Stanley knife in the obscure corners of British cinema and television. Jaime Winstone makes a brief appearance. Her father, Ray, would be forgiven for wondering why he wasn’t invited to the party. It’s not technically the East End without Ray, is it?
Wild Bill marks a corking debut from Fletcher and an overdue showcase for one of Britain’s most underrated actors, Charlie Creed-Miles. He plays Bill Hayward, a once-legendary gangster now stumbling out of prison in a rustling shell-suit and finding the world radically altered after his eight-year spell inside. He has two sons, 15-year-old Dean (Will Poulter) and 10-year-old Jimmy (Sammy Williams), who are fending for themselves in a Stratford tower block. Despite having been deserted by their mother, Dean is in no mood to welcome back this emaciated, bristle-faced ghost. The movie is about Bill’s efforts to win over his boys without slipping back into his old thuggish life. That sounds soft, and it is. But the film’s gentleness sets it apart.
I liked its mythical feel: the misty streets, the references to the Wild West (such as the tattoo on Bill’s chest: a sheriff’s badge with a British Rail logo inside) and a striking scene in which Bill and Jimmy throw paper aeroplanes from their high-rise balcony. One of Fletcher’s smartest decisions was to set and shoot the whole thing within sight of the Olympic building project; Dean has a job on the construction site (“Grab a shovel and dig me a velodrome,” barks his boss) and we can see the stadiums taking shape in the distance of many shots. This will make it a poignant time capsule for future audiences in much the same way that The Long Good Friday (in which Fletcher himself had a small role as a young urchin) and Close My Eyes have become cinematic markers in the evolution of the Docklands. But the Olympic backdrop also enriches our understanding of the characters’ desperate lives. All that ostentatious profligacy administers a daily dose of salt to their wounds.
Another excellent choice was to give Creed-Miles the best role he’s had since Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth, where he played Billy, a gormless smack addict. In Wild Bill, he makes his character’s transformation seem both surprising and genuinely hard-won, and he brings palpable remorse and disgust to a slightly over-written speech about the agony of prison life. That scene creates one of those instances of accidental continuity between unconnected performances: at the end of Nil By Mouth, the family members set off on a prison visit to see Billy; now here he is, as Bill, reflecting on those years spent festering behind bars.
Creed-Miles has been careful in his career to give a wide berth to the post-Lock, Stock fad for Mockney malarkey. When I interviewed him in 2000 he was bemoaning the bad press for his latest film Essex Boys, a real-life crime story which had been accused of glamorising violence:
“Essex Boys is suffering, I believe, for the sins of all these films that I’ve been turning down. Love, Honour and Obey, Rancid Aluminium — I could’ve been in all those, that’s a fact, but if you instantly dislike the script, it’s a bad sign. I was only able to do Essex Boys because I believed in the material, and believed that it wasn’t glorifying violence. I’m very proud that we haven’t got celebrity gangsters in our film — it really annoys me when these horrible people get turned into folk heroes. It’s not my fault that people are writing gangster scripts ten to the dozen. But I refuse to deploy my talents willy-nilly.”
Nice one, sunshine. Sweet as.
Wild Bill is released on Friday.