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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

lugubrious mood.

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

psychological notes.

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.