The War Zone
Proving some truth to the cliche that every actor in Hollywood wants to
direct, Tim Roth is the latest in a long line of thespians to step
behind the camera.
The actor helms "The War Zone," his stunning and clearheaded look at the
implosion of a family unit. Roth has all but cornered the market on
playing villains in films (like his Oscar-nominated turn in "Rob Roy"),
something he doesn't always find enjoyable. Having studied to be a
painter, the actor called upon that training in steering Alexander
Stuart's adaptation of his own disturbing novel from the page to the
While the title "The War Zone" might conjure images of battlefield
carnage, this is a much more insular story; the titular space is
actually a comfortable home in Devon, England. Because the family has
only recently settled in this isolated, rural coastal area, each member
is adjusting to the new surroundings.
Fueling the tension is the fact that Mom (the wonderful Tilda Swinton)
has just arrived home with a new baby girl. The father (Ray Winstone, in
one of his best screen performances to date) comes across as gruff but
caring. The two teen-agers Jessie and Tom (newcomers Lara Belmont and
Freddie Cunliffe) appear to be fairly typical of their peers: moody,
sullen and lethargic.
Stuart's spare script takes it time to build the tension while Roth's
expert handling of his actors aided by Seamus McGarvey's painterly
photography of the perpetually damp landscape create the appropriately
Like "Nil by Mouth", the directorial debut of fellow countryman Gary
Oldman, Roth's "War Zone" evokes a bleak landscape of family. Oldman's
film about an abusive husband (also played by Winstone) was at times
almost too painful to watch, and similarly this film sometimes proves
difficult viewing. Roth knows instinctively to highlight the details in
a story like this, and his extraordinary cast hits all the correct
In opting to build the film around the passive Tom and his growing
realization that something untoward is happening in the home, Roth and
Stuart take a great chance. Film is a medium that thrives on action, but
the writer and director trust the material and the cast even in these
scenes of stasis. By contrast, when an action does occur, it carries
more weight, both literally and figuratively.
This is not a feel-good film; its bleak story is reflected in the barren
landscape surrounding the house. When Tom finally takes action, it plays
almost as the machination of a spiteful, petulant brat, but that, too,
has a ring of truth. As the film moves to its inevitable but harrowing
climax, it takes the audience into the blighted heart of this particular
Roth has stated his major challenge in directing this film was offering
protection to his actors, and he is amply rewarded by a quartet of
stellar performances. Swinton has a relatively small amount of screen
time but is luminous as always. Winstone creates a believable monster,
and novices Belmont and Cunliffe more than hold their own.
"The War Zone" is not for the squeamish, but those willing to enter its
familial minefield will certainly never forget this tour of duty.
* No rating
"The War Zone"
Ray Winstone: Dad
Tilda Swinton: Mom
Lara Belmont: Jessie
Freddie Cunliffe: Tom
Kate Ashfield: Lucy
A Lot 47 presentation. Director Tim Roth. Screenplay and novel Alexander
Stuart. Producers Sarah Radclyffe and Dixie Linder. Director of
photography Seamus McGarvey. Editor Trevor Waite. Music Simon Boswell.
Production designer Michael Carlin. Art director Karen Wakefield.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.