The 2012 London Olympics are in full-swing so I’m celebrating all things British with a 3 part rundown of some of our finest films, covering the genres of Comedy, Horror and Kitchen Sink Realism.
This is in part a rebuke to the overrated waffle that is Chariots of Fire, a film annoyingly held up as the epitome of what British cinema has to offer. Nonsense. The 3 movies I have chosen each demonstrate a particular facet of the British character whilst standing up as genuine classics in their own right. My Gold Medal for Realism goes to the 1999 film, A Room for Romeo Brass.
Director Shane Meadows has a way with actors that is quite extraordinary. The opening sequence to A Room for Romeo Brass (set to The Specials’ A Message to You Rudy) is little more than a conversation between two friends: the eponymous Romeo (Andrew Shim), and Gavin (Ben Marshall). However, so brilliant are the performances, so believable is the dialogue that we really do feel like we’re spying on two friends crabbing at each other.
The sense of naturalism courses throughout the film like electricity, investing even the most banal of scenarios with warmth and compassion. In the first five minutes, we drop in on the two boys visiting the chippie; Romeo, demonstrating the antagonism familiar to all friendships, refuses to let Gavin enjoy a few chips reserved for his mum and sister. Such behaviour may be unremarkable and familiar but comes alive under Meadows’ brilliantly observant direction.
Meadows is one of many British filmmakers unafraid to turn the camera onto real people (or characters who could pass for real people). Drawing inspiration from the social realism of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, but with his own sense of kinetic drama (he’s been described as the ‘Scorsese of the Midlands’), Meadows dares to depict things as they are. In his movies, Britain is not a land of cream teas and academics; it’s a raw, impassioned, violent and funny place, as far removed from Richard Curtis as you could imagine.
But nor are his films dour, granite monoliths, sacrificing fun at the altar of plausibility. Meadows’ works fizzle with energy and life, even as they approach dark territory. He’s perhaps best celebrated for This is England, the 80s-set skinhead drama, and Dead Man’s Shoes (for my money, his masterpiece) – but Romeo Brass is the moment where we first begin to see his style coming together.
It’s a classic slice of life story, focusing on a crucial moment in Romeo and Gavin’s lives when their friendship is rent asunder by Paddy Considine’s psychotic loner, Morell. Meadows’ affinity for the Midlands locations in which he himself grew up results in a movie that is utterly believable: the slightest argument between the two friends feels wrenching; the formative experiences meanwhile (chucking porn out of the window to one another) are hysterically funny.
Such is Meadows’ skill with the performers that the film’s later developments never feel melodramatic. The film remains grounded and ordinary in the best sense of the word, a remarkably well-observed drama about unremarkable British life, and the minor conflicts that threaten to cause a conflagration. Morell’s invasion into the boys lives feels like a chilling violation, and no doubt many viewers can identify with the moment where one friend is (temporarily) given up for another.
It was Considine’s first collaboration with Meadows (as well as his film debut) and one can marvel as the seeds are sown for the Richard character in Dead Man’s Shoes. Considine’s ability to switch from geniality to vicious hostility is truly frightening, as honest a depiction of a human bully as there’s ever been. There’s nothing florid about the gestures in Considine’s performance: instead, he’s plugged into Meadows’ desire to keep everything plausible.
Of paramount importance also was the casting of the two boys, and Shim and Marshall share effortless chemistry. Meadows is equally invested in the supporting performers: Vicky McClure as Romeo’s sister, Ladine (the unwelcome recipient of Morell’s advances); Ladene Hall as his mum, Carol; Frank Harper (Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) as his estranged father, Joe; and Julia Ford and James Higgins as Gavin’s parents, Sandra and Bill. Each and every one of them give terrific turns.
Meadows’ committment to the little details resonates throughout. During the final confrontation between Morell and Bill on the front lawn (one of the best captured on film), the latter’s inability to maintain eye contact with the former feels so shatteringly real that it takes the breath away. Such is the goodwill Meadows has built up that not even the happy ending feels contrived or manipulative; instead, we feel as if another chapter in the characters’ lives has simply come to a close.
Meadows’ other films may garner more attention but it would be a shame were Romeo Brass relegated to the back of the class. Anyone who wants to see one of our finest directors establishing his style would do well to start here.