It’s been a little over a year since Peter Mullan, that marvelously granitic Scottish actor and filmmaker, hit the festival circuit with “Neds,” a vivid, punishing and sadly underseen semi-memoir of working-class adolescence arrested, in which he plays a version of his own brutal, alcoholic father.
It’s a film containing what for most artists would count as several years’ worth of channelled psychic pain, so it’s rather distressing to contemplate the brevity of the breather Mullan must have taken between that project and his role in “Tyrannosaur,” a moving, comfort-free study of personal abuse in its manifold forms.
Certain actors’ faces are designed for suffering; Mullan’s, it seems, more so than most. It’s scarcely surprising that it’d be selected to front the feature directing debut of an actor whose hangdog mug has weathered its own share of troubles on camera: Paddy Considine, a frayed English everyman whose unassuming screen persona has nonetheless done little to prepare us for the crimson assault course of physical and verbal violence in “Tyrannosaur.”
Guided by a less empathetic hand, there’d be something ostentatious about the misery on display in this cleanly structured tale of two lonely Leeds natives finding in each other vast craters of emotional damage; as it stands, Considine only occasionally overeggs his technique in order to underline his concern.
Certainly, the film wastes no time establishing the no-exit cruelty of its characters” world: we meet Mullan”s character Joseph, an unemployed widower crippled by rage, kicking his own dog to death after a minor misfortune at the betting shop. (It”s not the last instance of graphic canine abuse the film will depict across its brisk 92-minute running time: fainthearted friends of Fido, consider yourselves warned.) It”s an unsubtle but effective shorthand introduction to a man who emotionally self-sabotages at every given opportunity; even the film”s cryptic title (an unkind nickname for his late wife) is a bitter reminder of Joseph”s involuntary mistreatment of the things he loves most.
It”s to Mullan”s considerable credit that we feel anything for Joseph at all; he”s certainly a more compromised candidate for our sympathies than the film”s second lead Hannah (Olivia Colman), a God-fearing, bourgeois Samaritan who finds her selfless kindness repaid only with grotesque levels of domestic abuse at the hand of her seemingly milquetoast husband James (an appropriately wince-worthy Eddie Marsan). Hannah and Joseph meet when he stumbles into the goodwill shop where she works as a volunteer; initially assuming her charity a gesture of middle-class vanity, he comes to realize her victimhood is the magnetic inverse of his self-destructive impulses. Considine isn”t so idealistic or therapy-bent as to suggest these two abject souls can heal other, but there is comfort in their mutual recognition; in the sincerest way possible, this designed but intelligent character study might have been titled “Misery Loves Company.”
That such convenient sentiment is avoided is thanks in no small part to the astonishing performance of Colman, a smart, collaborative comic actress most recognized by British audiences for her dry, calibrated work as dim manipulator Sophie in cult sitcom “Peep Show”: that character”s dull cheeriness is carried over to the surface of Hannah, only for artful flashes of flinty reserve and ugly pain to gradually chip the façade. Colman is the rare, uncondescending actress who understands that to be inherently good and profoundly fucked-up are not mutually exclusive states; even before its wrenching climax, unlikely to be topped by any single scene of screen acting this year, her performance is achingly fragile in resolving the two.
Unsurprisingly, Considine is a sufficiently delicacy director of actors to coax these truths out of his superb leads without letting them fall into bombast. As a director, he”s less fallible, as this precisely edited and assuredly shot film occasionally trades in pointed symbolism and arch tonal cues that belie the candor elsewhere: still, they”re minor fillips in a keen-eyed debut, and stray casualties of a laudable effort to bring heightened poetry to material that could be effectively, if less provocatively, served by a cautious kitchen-sink approach. Through to an ending that steers pleasingly shy of the patly redemptive, “Tyrannosaur” – thoughtful, exquisitely performanced, with concealed jabs of wit and class commentary – hits hardest when it shows its bones.
[NOTE: Regular In Contention readers will note that, in line with HitFix standards, we no longer use the four-star grading system for reviews; rather, we have adopted letter grades. My Twitter followers will already be familiar with the way I apply the letter scale; others, I’m sure, will catch on quickly. In this case, a B+ grade is approximately equal to a 3.5-star rating on the old site.]