fri 14/08/2020

44 Inch Chest | reviews, news & interviews

44 Inch Chest

44 Inch Chest

Belated sequel to Sexy Beast is an orgy of expletives and testosterone

Colin (Ray Winstone) has murder in mind in 44 Inch Chest

Startlingly, it’s 10 years since Sexy Beast, the infernally cunning gangster movie with a terrifying performance from Ben Kingsley at its core. Now Beast’s screenwriters Louis Mellis and David Scinto are back with their new brainchild 44 Inch Chest. That authorial pedigree is written all over the screen (and in the way the air is turned perpetually blue), but this isn’t Sexy Beast II. It’s more like a visit from its long-lost extended family, and before the end you’re shifting uncomfortably in your seat and wondering how you can get rid of them without seeming ungrateful.

The story is brutally simple. We first meet Colin (Ray Winstone) lying catatonically on the floor of his smashed-up living room, his cut and slashed hands making it clear that the wreckage was a DIY job. Harry Nilsson’s flowery tear-jerker "Without You" plays loudly (you think it’s part of the soundtrack, but in a moment of drollery Colin reaches for the switch on the CD player to turn Harry off).

It transpires that Colin’s life has been blown apart by his wife Liz (Joanne Whalley) telling him that she’s leaving him for another man. He responded by beating her up, she ran away, and now Colin and his private goon quad of old mates are preparing to visit retribution on the Other Man, billed as “loverboy” (Melvil Poupaud). He’s a young French waiter, whom they’ve kidnapped and locked in a wardrobe in a derelict house in London’s East End while they drink whisky and debate how painful they should make his death.

This grotesque, faintly surreal setup inside the boarded-up house is the framework for virtually all the action, and it's all too easy to conclude that this was supposed to be a play but somehow ended up on film. First-time director Malcolm Venville uses the script as a pretext for putting five big-hitting actors in a room and lighting the blue touchpaper, and the ensemble adds up to a casting director’s dream. Ian McShane is the sleek and sardonic homosexual Meredith, Stephen Dillane’s Mal spits bile like a rabid dog, Tom Wilkinson is the ineffectual one hitching a ride with the bigger boys, and John Hurt pulls all the tools (including a ridiculous set of false teeth) out of his locker for a superb portrayal of the bitter, dessicated Old Man Peanut.

As they run through a gamut of macho posturing, ejaculations of gangsterish bravado, elaborate boastfulness and epic torrents of obscenities, it all pumps up the pressure on Colin to drag himself out of his heartbroken torpor and take the revenge that will set his unforgivable cuckoldry to rights.

Winstone, like McShane one of the project’s executive producers, evidently took the script personally, seeing it as a nostalgic glance back at a generation of East End males who (as he put it in a question-and-answer session at BFI Southbank) “grew up through the Second World War… and had morals and a dignity about themselves and kind of had an eye for an eye.” However, viewers not steeped in this palaeolithic male subculture might feel only disgust at their coarseness, aggression and misogyny. The only physical violence actually depicted is Colin’s assault on Liz. Yet it’s she, via feverishly imagined interventions while Colin is pulled apart by the irreconcilable poles of true love and vengeance, who is the only character capable of imparting any kind of adult wisdom.

44 could have been conceived as the antidote to chick-flicks, and the choking fumes of testosterone, claustrophobic menace and expletive-undeleted vocabulary make this about as viable a smoochy dating experience as a combat patrol with the 82nd Airborne. Even the title refers to a man’s chest measurement. Yet there are passages of eloquence and even a kind of grace. Mellis and Scinto intended that the script should rise above its mere vocabulary of sexual disgust and scatalogical abuse to create a heightened metalanguage (if we may indulge in a spot of media studies pretension), and there are sequences where the words do assume a kind of rhythmic abstraction that floats above the physical reality of props and scenery.

little_ladsThe hovering threat of violence is leavened by McShane’s diabolical suaveness as Meredith (pictured left, with Stephen Dillane and John Hurt). He smuggles in mocking Lovejoy-style glances to camera, while his constant banter with the gay-bashing Peanut hints at homoerotic undercurrents which Venville chooses not to belabour. Winstone, meanwhile, modulates beautifully between rage, aggression, remorse, regret and a gnawing realisation that love and premeditated murder may not be compatible after all.

The downside, apart from the way Venville allows his systematically cranked tensions to dissipate in a frustrating non-ending, is that the film’s strengths aren’t filmic ones. Sealing up most of the action in a drab, bare room amounts to an abdication of the filmmaker’s art and artifice, and feels especially disappointing after we’ve been tantalised by a brief visit to Meredith’s glittering riverside apartment, and a night out at the casino alongside a delightfully berserk Steven Berkoff. You’d guess that a bit of design-by-committee must have crept in somewhere along the way. But a few acting gongs seem certain to come its way.

Despite the choking fumes of testosterone, claustrophobic menace and expletive-undeleted vocabulary there are passages of eloquence and even a kind of grace

Explore topics

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters