Remember Christmas? That time of year for relaxing, taking stock, eating, drinking and spending time with the family? I’ve just experienced my first Christmas at Popcorn Towers, having moved house earlier in the year, and took a few days off work in the run up to get all the preparation finished. Presents were bought and wrapped in advance, cards were posted way before the postal cut-off date, the tree and decorations looked good and I even had a day to mentally prepare myself for the ordeal of fisting a giant, dead turkey.
This year my mum, who is in her mid-70s, visited for a week, and we also hosted my wife’s family for a few days. Picture the scene on Christmas Eve, if you don’t mind indulging me for a minute or two: Six of us are sat in a small, cosy lounge. The Christmas tree lights are on, a stormy night outside means that the wind is howling and the rain is lashing down, but its warm inside. Everyone has eaten too much and the sofas are full. A couple of people are dozing off, muttering about the low quality television on offer, when all of a sudden the unanimous decision is made to put on “a Christmassy film”. “Brilliant!”, I think. “I’ll be able to review something like Scrooged, or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, or maybe even a movie that’s a little edgier, like Bad Santa or A Nightmare Before Christmas. Perhaps I’ll make some mulled wine or something. Y’know, the cherry on top of the cake.”
Around fifty minutes later, however, a man named Don Logan is standing inches away from another man named Gal Dove, and is screaming in his face: “No! No no no no no no no no! No! No no no no no no no no no! No! Not this fucking time! No fucking way, no fucking way, no fucking way! No fucking way, you made me look a right c**t!”.
And with that, his twentieth “c**t!” in as many minutes, Don and I have just ruined everyone’s Christmas.
I don’t know what persuaded me to persuade others to watch Sexy Beast, as it’s a film I’ve seen before and therefore I was perfectly aware of its content. Still, for some unknown reason, Sexy Beast was the film I chose to fit into this idyllic family Christmas scene. An extremely sweary, occasionally-violent Anglo-Spanish gangster film, it’s perhaps the least appropriate movie I could have chosen, despite its many merits. An inventive film that is not typical of the genre at all, it’s difficult to believe that since its release director Jonathan Glazer has only made two more movies (2004’s Birth and next year’s sci-fi Under The Skin, which has already wildly divided critical opinion at film festival screenings).
Gal (Ray Winstone) is a retired safe-cracker enjoying an idyllic lifestyle with his ex-porn star wife DeeDee (Amanda Redman) and their friends Aitch (Cavan Kendall, who sadly passed away shortly after the film was made) and Jackie (Julianne White) in Spain. Gal’s past as a member of a criminal gang in London has paid for a huge villa with a swimming pool, and we first encounter him sunbathing (having achieved that particularly horrible orange leathery tan that sunseekers seem to be so proud of), musing about his lot. Ominously, a giant boulder suddenly falls from the hills above Gal’s villa, missing him by inches and smashing the tiles at the bottom of his pool.
As an act of foreshadowing, it’s quite striking. Soon enough, an old contact from London named Don (Sir Sir Ben Kingsley) is on the phone, requesting Gal’s presence in London to help with a bank heist organised by crime lord Teddy Bass (Ian McShane). Gal isn’t interested, but before too long Don shows up in Spain for some more forceful, face-to-face persuasion.
The film hangs almost completely on the unhinged character of Don, a psychopath who smashes up Gal’s world like a wrecking ball. He is a memorable screen bully, brilliantly portrayed by Kingsley, who puts in the kind of performance that ensures you can’t take your eyes off him for one moment. I can only compare it to Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito in GoodFellas: it’s different, but equally magnetic, and it’s impossible to second guess what he will do or say next.
* Nil By Mouth also starred Ray Winstone, which may or may not be a coincidence.
Much of what Don does say incorporates the words “fuck” or “c**t”. Although Sexy Beast doesn’t quite steal Nil By Mouth‘s* crown as Sweariest Film Of All Time, it gives it a good run for its money, and most of it comes from Don. The rather simple premise of the film becomes something altogether more interesting, and gripping, as a result of his exaggerated characteristics.
It’s also helped by the dreamy, slightly trippy edge that Glazer incorporates. A creator of visually-strong music videos and adverts, he actually holds back with the imagery in his feature film debut if anything, but a central motif of a freakish, evil-looking human/rabbit figure distances Sexy Beast from the unthinking, British mockney gangster movies that appeared with alarming regularity at the end of the 1990s. Gal has nightmares about this rabbit, which possibly symbolizes the violent life that he has failed to fully leave behind, and its appearance is also foreshadowed when Aitch, Gal and a young Spanish boy (Álvaro Monje) they have ‘adopted’ fail to kill a real rabbit while out hunting.
Winstone is good – and reasonably likeable – as the ex-gangster attempting to live a quiet life in the sun. The actor is well known for portraying tough Londoners, but he plays Gal with a strong sense of vulnerability, particularly when he is interacting with old gang colleagues. There are hints at Gal’s violent past throughout the story, but he receives the viewer’s sympathies due to the fact he is so clearly (and rightly) petrified of the mentally-unstable Don. The scenes in which Gal, Aitch, DeeDee and Jackie trade awkward glances and silences while trying to make small talk with Don are superbly written by Louis Mellis and David Scinto; the tension is never overplayed, but the constant threat that hangs in the air is keenly felt.
Special mention must also go to Ian McShane, who is more widely known for his TV roles as Lovejoy in Lovejoy and Al Swearengen in Deadwood; he has had a long, distinguished career but his performance here is excellent, playing the sinister, controlling Teddy Bass with great skill; watching him subtly dominate Winstone’s Gal with his body language is a real treat. But it’s Kingsley’s Logan that sticks in the mind the most: a terrifying, demented bald motormouth who barely has a shred of control over his words and actions, he makes for terrific viewing.
Glazer’s film might look, on paper at least, like another entry in the long list of cliched English gangster flicks. There’s a heist, for instance, there are plenty of tough-nut cockney characters and there’s the presence of Ray Winstone, all of which might cause some viewers to roll their eyes in despair given the latter’s involvement with more prosaic gangster films of the late 90’s like Face, Final Cut or Love, Honour and Obey. Yet Winstone is an actor of great talent, and given the right script he can carry a crime film better than most. Here he gets the right script, and he puts in a fine central performance.
Those that approach Sexy Beast with an open mind will be rewarded; many scenes in this dark film would translate well to the stage, and despite the director’s background of strong visual imagery the film relies more on its theatrical dialogue and the core, small cast’s acting than anything else. (That said, it is also visually inventive on occasion.) Just don’t assume other family members will share your joy when Don Logan hits his twentieth “c***” though.
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Written by: Louis Mellis, David Scinto
Starring: Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Ian McShane, Amanda Redman
Running Time: 91 minutes