The 1990s were dark days for the British Film industry. Yes, films were being made. Yes, excellent films were being made : Reputations were formed, new territory was broken and new talent was uncovered. But all of this was going on despite a frankly bizarre obsession with what can only be called ‘geezer films’ : These were cheaply produced and heavily hyped crime dramas littered with cockney accents and pointless violence intended to replicate Guy Ritchie’s success at cashing in on the rediscovery of the crime film in the wake of the rise of Quentin Tarantino. At its best, the genre produced films like Paul McGuigan’s Gangster No. 1 (2000) and Mike Hodges’ Croupier (1997). Intelligent and psychological films that harkened back to classic British crime films of yore such as John MacKenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1980) and Mike Hodges’ Get Carter (1971). At its worst, the genre gave us sweary, lairy films like Edward Thomas’ Rancid Aluminium (2000) and Kevin Allen’s Twin Town (1997). Right smack bang in the middle of these two trends was Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast (2000). Sexy Beast is a film that attempts to explore the psychology of an old lag forced out of retirement by a criminal fraternity that sees him as little more than a skill-set. It is also a film that found an audience thanks largely to its more accessible aspects such as Ben Kingsley swearing and Ray Winstone making a fool of himself in a tiny pair of red speedos. 44 Inch Chest marks the return of some of the creative talent behind Sexy Beast — most notably Ray Winstone and Ian McShane who practically reprise their roles from Sexy Beast — in a script penned by the same writing team of Louis Mellis and David Scinto. The result is a film that shares all of Sexy Beast’s theatrical intensity and sculptured vulgarity but adds to it a psychologically fractured intelligence brought to bear on a single question : What would you do to the man who fucked your wife?
Colin Diamond (Winstone) is a nice guy. He lives in the suburbs, he has plenty of friends and he has a beautiful wife named Liz (Joanne Walley). One day, he comes home and he finds Liz in the kitchen. She is stand-offish. He knows something is wrong. She tells him that she has met someone else. Colin does not deal with this revelation particularly well. He responds by beating his wife to a pulp and then getting his friends, a bunch of ageing criminals, to kidnap the young French waiter that Liz slept with and drag him to a boarded up building where they can decide what terrible vengeance to wreak upon the adulterous toe-rag. The film deals with Colin’s attempts to reach a decision as he slowly pulls himself together. Colin’s drunk and emotional state means that, initially at least, he takes a back seat to proceedings. This allows his friends to dominate the foreground of the film, their beautifully drawn personalities playfully bouncing off each other as they discuss what it would they would do in Colin’s position.
Meredith (Ian McShane) — The first thing that strikes us about Meredith is his elegance. Whereas the other characters look like they have been up all night and have slept in their clothes, Meredith looks immaculately tailored in a jet black suit and half a bottle of fake tan. He is not only elegant and lucky, he is also fiercely charismatic and charming. Charismatic enough to be able to live as an openly gay man in the decidedly old school and macho environment of London’s criminal underworld. Meredith boasts of the fact that people are drawn to him and the fact that he is so beloved of the people around him explains why he seems to have a generosity of spirit that none of the others share. Indeed, when the group discuss their old friends, Meredith speaks of them with a real sense of warmth. “He was a shy man” he says affectionately of someone he claims to have “fucked in the eighties”. He also speaks glowingly of Liz, describing her as glamorous, vivacious and beautiful. However, as the narrative unfolds, the charisma of Meredith starts to fray around the edges. He is still a charming and lovely man but there is something else there. When Colin asks him what he should do to his wife’s lover, Meredith calmly draws on his cigarette and says that if it were him he’d skin and murder both the lover and the wife. The wife he spoke of so glowingly mere minutes before. He also goes on to warn how he is not like Colin. Colin is a family man, a lover, a husband. He cares about his wife. Meredith claims to not be capable of loving in that way. He boasts that after he orgasms, he walks out the door without even a thank you. When Meredith says that he is not like Colin, he could be saying that he is gay and that gay men are different to straight men, but he could also be saying that he — Meredith — is not capable of love. Too detached. Too cold. Too calculating. This begs the question, is Meredith genuinely charismatic, or is he simply skilled at manipulating people?
Peanut (John Hurt) — Hurt is an actor who seems to be relishing his old age. Always a skilled performer, his advancing years have unlocked an almost hypnotic well of bitterness that swirls around him whenever he is on-screen. A bitterness visible in his return to the part of Quentin Crisp in An Englishman in New York (2009) and as the fading individualist and self-proclaimed Nazi and Tory MP Alan Clarke in the TV adaptation of The Alan Clarke Diaries (2004). 44 Inch Chest sees Hurt delving deeper than ever before into the seething cauldron of ageing unpleasantness to produce a horrific and spiteful old bastard who behaves like the biologically impossible love-child of Wilfred Bramble from Steptoe and Son (1962) and Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction (1994). Forever quoting the bible (though I’m not sure that the word ‘cunt’ appears quite as often in the bible as his dialogue suggests), Peanut seems to embody an old testament deity : Stuck in the past, vindictive, sclerotic, gangrenous, vicious and ultimately comical. Peanut does not so much buy into the idea of an eye for an eye as he does the idea that any transgression should result in the guilty party having his eyelids cut off and put in a bag with a snake, a cockerel and a dog before being thrown into the sea. His view of Liz is nothing short of apocalyptic; A woman betraying her husband seems to offend him deeply. So deeply that when Liz teases him his teeth start falling out in anger. This seething biblical hatred resurfaces time and again in Peanut’s dealings with Meredith whose homosexuality he finds just as offensive as Liz’s femininity, but as is suggested by the fact that Peanut goes home with Meredith at the end of the evening, Peanut is not homophobic or misogynistic. He is simply a hateful person. A vindictive person. A spiteful person. In this respect he is very much like God.
Archie (Tom Wilkinson) — Another veteran actor enjoying his advancing years, Wilkinson plays Archie as a supremely pleasant chap. When we first encounter him, he has just finished making soup for his elderly mother and the film later reveals that he lives with her too. His devotion to her is almost religious, at one point he even jokes that the old girl will outlive him. It’s the type of thing that people say when talking about older relatives but Wilkinson delivers the line with a melancholy earnestness that suggests that this is not a pleasantry for Archie but an item of Faith and absolute knowledge. His mother will not die. Archie’s apparent niceness seems to serve an almost parental role within the group. He laughs at people’s jokes, he fetches food, he offers people drinks. He is supportive and nurturing but he, like the rest of the group, is capable of segueing almost seamlessly into a much more menacing persona. A persona that could, at any time, erupt into violence. Interestingly enough, this duality also featured in Wilkinson’s performance as Benjamin Franklin in the recent HBO miniseries John Adams (2008). The bulk of Wilkinson’s appearance as Franklin took place during the years when Franklin was the American ambassador to the court of the French King. A time when Franklin himself was playing a part… that of an elderly but charming savage from the New World. Of course, beneath the elderly savage lurked a fiercely intelligent and profoundly modern man. A scientist adept at unravelling the mysteries of the natural world and a politician who could look past the niceties of polite society to see the bruising realpolitik that underpinned it. Archie’s willingness to ‘play mother’ to the group suggests a similar duality.
Mal (Stephen Dillane) — Dillane is the youngest actor in the group and this noticeable age difference does make him stick out. Why would a much younger man choose to work with and hang out with much older men? How can he share their memory of villains past? Dillane plays Mal as a louche and sexualised presence. His attitude towards Liz is not the supportive friendliness of Archie, the hatred of Peanut or the admiration of Meredith. His relationship with Liz is clearly one of attraction. In one beautiful scene, Liz asks Mal for a light and Dillane stands up, slowly pats himself down and leans into her, offering his lighter and smiling as she steadies his hand and draws against the flame. Mal’s obvious attraction to Liz combined with his younger age makes him suspicious to Colin and the rest of the group. It Others him in a way that echoes the group’s attitude towards the bleeding Frenchman in the cupboard. Mal is the kind of man you could imagine Liz falling for. Maybe Mal possesses what Liz once saw in Colin…
As an example of an ensemble performance, 44 Inch Chest is superb, there is something organic about the way that the cast play off each other. This is particularly noticeable in one scene where the group sit around the romantic interloper and hurl insults at him as though they are egging each other on, psyching each other up and strengthening their resolve as they work themselves up to killing the battered and bruised man. The camera flits from face to face as the characters choose their insults with precision, coaxing a form of free-flowing poetry from the flood of obscenity as puns and word-play are slowly folded into the mix, affecting the mood, changing the dynamics, heightening the tension. The true power of this scene only reveals itself once you realise that its true purpose is as a form of thematic foreshadowing. The way that the group acts together like one mind and the way in which the different characters seems to feed upon each others’ anger and hatred suggests that this is a group with deep ties to each other. Deeper than may initially appear possible.
As the film progresses, the script subtly shifts emphasis from one character to the next. This gives the actors room to inhabit their role but it also allows Colin’s different courses of action to be considered and discussed as a group. Initially, Peanut takes the floor and preaches blood and vengeance. Then Meredith takes the floor and suggests that the matter should be resolved using a coin toss. Later Mal will step forward and remind Colin of how much he still loves and desires his wife while Archie constantly smoothes out the rough edges in the group dynamic, allowing the different men to talk to each other. Keeping things civil. The fact that each of the characters represents a different viewpoint is no accident. Halfway through the film, Colin regains his agency and begins to think for himself but it is clear that his head is not particularly clear. He begins to hallucinate. He works his way through the different perspectives but allows the different characters to blend into one another. Sometimes he reacts against things that they have not actually done…
At the heart of 44 Inch Chest is a flight of psychological fantasy : A man is destroyed by the revelation that his wife has cheated upon him and he must pull himself together and decide how to react. How to move forward. However, having been shaken out of his old routine and having lost the old certainties of a 20-plus year marriage, Colin realises that he has no idea who he is. “There is no Colin” he says towards the end of the film. The different viewpoints represented by Colin’s different friends soon come to represent the different parts of Colin’s personality. His sense of self. His ethics. His attitude towards the world. His attitude to Liz : Is Colin mostly Peanut? – Will he exact a terrible revenge upon his wife and her lover for the fact that she betrayed her husband? Or is Colin mostly Meredith? – Does he not ultimately care about what happens to Liz and her boyfriend because, at the end of the day, nothing really matters? Is Colin Archie? – A sexless but caring and supportive creature? Is Colin Mal? – A young man who would shamelessly flirt with his friend’s adulterous wife right in front of him? As Colin suggests a relationship is hard work. It requires the assumption of many roles. Of many personalities. Of many attitudes. But which is the real Colin? Is there even a real Colin at all? The film suggests that there may very well not be.
As I said in my opening remarks : Colin is a nice guy. He has a nice house in the suburbs. He brings his wife flowers and chocolates. He knows that relationships are hard work. He’s very loving. But do nice guys have sociopathic criminal friends? Do nice guys kidnap their wife’s lovers in order to beat them up and consider skinning them alive? Do nice guys find themselves having to make grand gestures like buying roses and chocolates? Hidden beneath the surface of Colin’s protestations of innocence and victimhood is the suggestion that Colin is actually an evil cunt. His protestations of love carry within them the seeds of bitterness and resentment. The pride he takes in fixing a tap despite the fact that Liz has been asking him to fix it for five years. The irritation he poorly conceals when she does not show gratitude for his finally doing a tiny bit of DIY. These seeds of unpleasantness ultimately blossom into awareness of how vicious and nasty Colin can be but the point remains that Colin contains multitudes. He could be that nice guy. He could be the vicious misogynist. He could be the sexual instigator. We all contain multitudes. We all change over time. Our relationships are affected by the ways in which different aspects of our personalities present themselves to others. There is no single Colin and 44 Inch Chest perfectly understands this.
Who do you think is really tied up in the cupboard?
Why do you think that he never says anything?
Why do you think that Colin lets him go?
We all have to start and end somewhere.
44 Inch Chest asks what you would do to the man who fucked your wife. What if that man was you?