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UK 1999
Directed by
Tim Roth
98 minutes
Rated R

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

The War Zone

Synopsis: 15 year-old Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) witnesses a disturbing incident which takes place in the bathroom between his father (Ray Winstone) and his sister, Jess (Lara Belmont). Confronted with Tom's accusations, Jess denies anything happened, yet Tom remains unconvinced and continues to seek evidence of his suspicions. Meanwhile, their mother (Tilda Swinton) nurses their newborn sister who is eventually taken sick to hospital. Tom uncovers and reveals the terrible secret which will pull apart the entire family.

Tim Roth's debut directorial feature is a hard film to watch. Halfway through the screening, I experienced the rare urge to walk out of a film, leaving the ending undisclosed. Yet, for all the revulsion and rage I felt, I had to stay until the final credits. Despite the controversy surrounding its subject matter The War Zone is more a film about feeling and visuals than it is about incest and the story behind it. It is a rare movie which makes you feel utterly sick and revolted, even as you search for certainty as to the nature of what is occurring. The acts of violence committed are, in a way, not as disturbing as what occurs afterwards, which is utter denial on the part of both the perpetrator and the victim. But The War Zone delves not into why incest occurs, only its aftermath. Its clever lack of detail enables the viewer's imagination to presume the worse when there is nothing to be seen. It is a film which uses the family environment as a backdrop for the different kinds of war carried out; the war of silence, the war of sexual coercion, and finally the war of physical violence.

The story is set in Devon, England during winter. An unnamed family has moved to the coast from London, hence the house is in disarray and dislocation. There is a certain atmosphere of tension, yet one is not certain why; maybe it is due to the expectant mother, or the way the family members act towards one another, sullen one moment then warm and smiling the next. There is an anticipation of an eruption which never threatens, but which is held back by relentless distractions such as the constant phone calls, relentless mumblings of half-heard sentences and later, a crying baby. Outside, the rain soaks even more of the soggy coastal landscape. Gnarled trees cling to the windswept coastline. A bunker sits atop the highest cliff like an ominous crown. The pervasive feeling of cold, bleakness and wetness are only given relief via small spotlights of warmth: a mother nurses her newborn by the radiator, siblings playfully wrestle each other. Yet even these are somehow permeated with an underlying unease, sullen and unyielding, silent yet somehow obliquely there.

Tom, the sullen teenage voyeur, acts as the 'eyes' of the film. It is through him that we discover the acts of betrayal, even though we do not always see them. Yet he too has complications of his own, as he undergoes the confusing state between puberty and adulthood, and explores his own awkward sexuality. He begins to doubt what he has witnessed between his father and sister in the bathroom, just as we do when there is no proof of it, especially when Jess denies it so thoroughly. But his, and our, search for the truth continues, until a later scene when the truth hits us with the sort of sickening finality which we wish we never sought.

The War Zone is a finely crafted film which lets its silent spaces speak for themselves. Roth manages to tread the line between shock and repugnance with a finely attuned sensitivity. His creation of atmosphere and use of characters hint at a style which is subtle and understated, even as it does not spare the viewer the final and horrendous aftermath of sexually abusive acts.




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