The War Zone (1999), Yet Another underrated British Gem

Content Warning: Discussion of rape & incest in this review and within the film.

I wish I had watched this film because I’d heard a lot about it, and wanted to experience a film I’d heard a tremendous amount of praise and acclaim for. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case, until I saw it while scrolling on Amazon Prime I’d never even heard of The War Zone, what finally made me decide to watch it was finding out that one of my favourite actors, Tim Roth, directed it in his debut. But even half an hour into the film I was shocked that this was a film I’d never even seen discussed anywhere, and even more shocked that since this film Tim Roth has never returned to the directing chair. 

The War Zone is a deeply harrowing and troubling film, dealing with the delicate and heavy topic of abuse, incest and the impact that a parents actions can have on their children. There is an incredible level of nuance in the film, and within Alexander Stuart’s script (which is based on his novel of the same name), showing the story from the point of view of the adolescent Tom, played by Freddie Cunliffe, a 15-year old boy who is struggling with the isolation and alienation that came with his family’s recent move to Devon from London, as well as his own internal struggles about his sexuality. The film opens with a gorgeous sequence where the camera follows Tom as he cycles through the countryside, a lone figure contrasted against the wide open and empty roads & fields of Devon. It perfectly sets up through visuals alone the feeling of loneliness that Tom is experiencing. In this early part of the film, Tom’s struggles are juxtaposed with the seemingly warm family life; within the small household a lot of care is presented, between Tom, his sister Jesse (played by Lara Belmont), and their parents, only ever called Mum & Dad (played by Tilda Swinton & Ray Winstone, respectively), as they relax at the end of the day as Mum and Jesse sharing a glass of wine, and then helping Dad relax after a day of work by washing him off. After an urgent trip to the hospital for Mum to give birth that results in a dangerous crash, the cracks in the family dynamic begin to show. These cracks come to a head when Tom accidentally spots his sister and his father in a bathtub as he comes home from a shopping trip. There are already hints that Tom holds some incestuous feelings towards his mother and sister, but these feelings quickly turn to disgust and resentment against both Jesse and his father. Not only does this incident lead to an even further isolation for Tom, but it creates tension between Tom and Jesse as he works to expose his sister. It is at this point in the film that the two elements of the abuse and Tom’s own troubled feelings merge, and the rest of the film becomes Tom’s journey, that borders of the voyeuristic, becomes a way to come to terms with his own sexual feelings alongside the trauma of his father’s actions.

One element of the script that Tim Roth spoke about is keeping the parents nameless, only referred to as Mum and Dad throughout, as he said he wanted to keep their actions rooted firmly in the perspective of parents and what we expect of adults in those roles. This couples well with another choice which is the absence of a lot of dialogue in the film; silence plays a major role in the film, allowing scenes and actions to speak for themselves without the need to labour the point through exposition. These elements really help the themes of isolation and confusion that Tom is going through, as well as the idea of abuse, especially within the family, being a very unspoken thing; with only the people involved knowing and dealing with it. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography also helps these feelings and emotions come through the camerawork; the closing shot is especially great in this regard, but throughout the camerawork really captures these feelings well. But one of the best choices in the film is the composition of the brutal bunker scene, its easily the toughest scene to watch in the entire film, but the stillness of the camera not only reflects the video recorder involved, but also the uncomfortable spectatorship that Tom experiences by watching. 

What really ties this film together into a complete package is the acting from the whole cast. Both Lara Belmont and Freddie Cunliffe star in this as their first acting role, which not only helps the realism of the film, but is also incredibly impressive considering their performances. Both of their performances are so harrowing and emotional, I was shocked to find out they weren’t seasoned actors. Both instill their role with incredible poignancy, especially Belmont who portrays the broken psyche of her character so incredibly. Certain scenes are so hard to watch just because of how she presents what her character is going through; the shame, the anger and the hurt, behind all of her scenes come across so well. Cunliffe’s has the more difficult role, as the whole film is presented through him, but he matches the tone of the isolation and confusion so well in his role. Rounding out the core cast, both Swinton, who admittedly has less to do in the film, and Winstone are fantastic in their roles, the latter especially. Winstone portrays the unsuspecting monster so well, transferring the malice of his actions through his children as the father role so well. While on the surface he seems like a great father, especially before we know the situation, contrasts so well with the scenes where he erupts into anger and vitriol. During the climax of the film his performance is truly troubling, avoiding responsibility for his actions while transferring the blame onto Tom, until he really is backed into a corner.

This is one of those lesser-known British films that deserves a lot more attention and praise than it currently has. Admittedly this film did receive good reviews upon release, amidst its fair share of controversy, but I worry that it has been lost to time. Which is a real shame as Tim Roth is fantastic as a first-time director and I really hope he decides to return to this element of filmmaking as if this is film is anything to go by, he has a lot of skill and potential.


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