Ben Wheatley’s 2009 debut offers a welcome spin on the tired old British gangster film. Its Union Jack-bedecked poster (and the marketing more generally) suggests you’re in for one of those straight-to-Tesco crime dramas – the kind that are so bad even Danny Dyer and Vinnie Jones won’t touch them with a fackin’ barge pole, guv – and perhaps that’s what distributor Magnolia thought they were buying, though that may be doing them a disservice. In fact Down Terrace isn’t one of those films at all: it takes a typically dysfunctional criminal family out of the warehouses and docklands and strip clubs of London and puts them instead in an altogether more ‘normal’ milieu of a terrace house in Brighton, where a violent fortnight of retribution, murder and spiritual discourse plays out. It’s also intermittently very funny, with several notable sit-com faces filling out the cast, such as Julia Deakin (Spaced, I’m Alan Partridge), David Schaal (The Office, The Inbetweeners), Michael Smiley (Spaced) and Tony Way (Swiss Toni, Black Books).
I’m catching up with Wheatley’s films before his latest, the J.G. Ballard adaptation High-Rise, hits UK cinemas next week; I was aware that his first few movies incorporated an occasionally-uncomfortable mix of dour, straight-faced comedy and sudden, bluntly-delivered acts of violence, and that’s Down Terrace in a nutshell, with a dose of kitchen sink Shakespearian drama or council estate Mario Puzo thrown in for good measure. When the attacks come – with knife, hammer and anything else at hand – they’re gruseome but surprisingly underplayed: one blow is usually enough, though a knife fight in an underpass is longer, drawn out for added tension. Some of the acting, as you’d maybe expect for a low-budget debut, is weak, and it’s a little too busy – seeing a crime family disintergrate so quickly is a stretch to accept, particularly when they appear to actually get along and love one another – but as first features go there are moments of effective black comedy here that bode well for me as I prepare for his other films. It’s not a re-invention of the British gangster film, but it’s good to see a fresh spin on this most tired of genres, and I quite liked it’s lo-fi, close-up, terrace house claustrophobia. Inasmuch as it’s the film that launched Wheatley’s career, I should also point out the contribution of Robin Hill, who co-wrote, co-starred and co-edited.
Directed by: Ben Wheatley.
Written by: Robin Hill, Ben Wheatley.
Starring: Richard Hill, Robin Hill, Julia Deakin, David Schaal, Kerry Peacock, Michael Smiley, Tony Way.
Cinematography: Laurie Rose.
Editing: Robin Hill, Ben Wheatley.
Music: Jim Williams.
Running Time: 89 minutes.