Thursday, 16 June 2011



I've often said (high) expectations regarding films are never a good thing, especially the longer you have to wait to see that film. Expectations build over time and, whether fairly or not, a film will rarely meet those expectations and your response to it will suffer as a result.

So it was, sadly, with Life, Above All. Oliver Schmitz's drama about the effects of AIDS on a South African village family had been praised by Roger Ebert when it screened at Cannes in 2010, and I had been eagerly awaiting to see it since. But thirteen months is far too long to wait to see a film (ask a Malick fan, or his producers) and so, through no fault of its, Life, Above All failed to meet the expectations I had built up in that time.

AIDS is rarely ever mentioned in the film and not until the third act, but the spectre of the disease hangs over the family of young Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) like a cloud. Chanda's young sister has just died from the disease, passed on to her through her mother, Lilian; her mother having contracted the disease from her second husband, Jonah.

But no-one dares mentions the disease by name lest the neighbours, through fear and ignorance, take up arms, or in this case stones, against them. Lilian's best friend and neighbour, Mrs. Tafa, who lost a son in an "accident", encourages Lilian in her secrecy (better the neighbours think the house has been cursed) but Chanda, a bright student who knows her best friend Esther's parents died from the disease, grows increasingly worried that her mother's refusal to accept the truth could cost her her life.

Life, Above all is a brave film to be made in a country which does not have a glowing track record in its recognition, education about and treatment of the AIDS virus. And I'm sure Schmitz's film would go a long way to lifting the stigma, superstition and misinformation surrounding the disease in South Africa.

Sadly, for all its good intentions and solid performances, I was not as moved by the plight of Chanda and her family as I should have been or had hoped to be. And I'll readily admit, my own high expectations had a lot to do with that, though I would say (implore) to local distributors: don't make us wait so long to see these films!


Actor Paddy Considine first came to my attention with his breakout performance in Jim Sheridan's 2003 film, In America, playing the father of an Irish immigrant family in 198os New York. Samantha Morton and Djimon Hounsou deservedly scored Oscar nominations for their performances, but it's Considine's which remains, for me, the heart of that film.

So when eight years later Considine makes his feature directorial debut, my interest is piqued. Tyrannosaur is an expansion of his own short film, Dog Altogether, which won prizes in Venice and from BAFTA, and though I haven't seen it, I'm guessing it focused on the bleak, working class milieu which provides the back drop here.

Joseph (Peter Mullan) is a loner plagued by demons; anger brought on by psychosis or vice versa. When we first meet Joseph he kills his dog (it's not been a good Festival for the animals!) with a swift couple of kicks, throws a brick through the post office window and starts a pub brawl with a couple of lads who are talking too loud whilst playing pool.

It's after this last episode that he meets Hannah (Olivia Colman), when he comes to hide out in her Christian charity shop. Through her kindness and patience, Hannah seems to make a connection with Joseph but she already has demons of her own to deal with.

That would be her husband, who we know is evil because he's played by Eddie Marsan, the Brit actor who excels at despicable. Any violence Joseph perpetrates pales in comparison to the brutality and humiliation inflicted upon Hanna by her husband.

Yes, Tyrannosaur (the name derives from a cruel in-joke related to Joseph's dead wife) is a tough-at-times watch and rather bleak, though it does end on a somewhat hopeful note. Mullan and Colman deliver terrific central performances, no doubt aided by actor-cum-director Considine whose sophomore effort should be worth catching based on the evidence presented here.

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