Tyrannosaur is not an easy movie to watch as it features some harrowing scenes of domestic violence and cruelty but Paddy Considine’s directorial debut is a confident dramatic tour de force which is a showcase for the best in British acting.
Set in present day Leeds, Peter Mullan plays Joseph, an unemployed alcoholic widower struggling to control his impulse for uncontrolled violence. After an altercation in a pub leaves him beaten up Joseph finds shelter in a charity shop run by Hannah (Olivia Colman) who is scared but doesn’t call the police and instead offers to pray for him. Joseph responds with venom-dripping cynicism – after all what does Hannah know about real life?
But unbeknownst to him, her life is far from the bed of roses he assumes it to be as she lives in daily fear of her husband (Eddie Marsan), who habitually abuses her both mentally and physically. And when he finds out about Joseph, things go from bad to worse.
Joseph is not an easy character to like- the opening scenes show him taking out his betting shop frustrations on his dog Bluey. It’s a scene which isn’t gratuitous but is deeply unpleasant, a reflection of Joseph’s character, a man who can’t help but hurt himself and others, whose first instinct is to destroy only to regret his actions almost instantly.
In addition to his dog, he takes his rage out on a garden shed with a sledgehammer and smashes a shop window following an altercation. There’s a sense that this represents a progression for him – he smashes objects not people. But a regression seems almost inevitable especially given the variety of potential targets – the mouthy kids of his estate, the shirtless scumbag who lives across the road, Hannah’s abusive husband.
Tyrannosaur is a violent film but one that doesn’t fetishise violence – Considine keeps most of it off screen, focusing on its psychological framework rather than the act itself.
The Tyrannosaur of the film is Joseph’s dead wife – the result of a cruel nickname he coined because as she was so heavy, water in teacups rippled when she walked down the stairs. But it could quite easily apply to Joseph himself – an ageing monster on the verge of extinction, a dinosaur raging at the world.
Mullan is superb. There’s virtually no one that can portray simmering rage which lurks so close to the surface; sometimes it looks like he’s physically straining to keep from exploding. He also skilfully manages to keep Joseph sympathetic – a tremendous achievement given the character’s unpleasantness.
But as good as Mullan is, it’s Olivia Colman who proves to be the standout. She’s long been an asset to British comedy – Peep Show, Green Wing and Look Around You are some of the finest comedies of the last 10 years but here she shows that she’s got some serious dramatic chops as well.
She looks at everyone with such hope, like a puppy hoping that this time she won’t receive a beating, that this time it might all be different. Her eventual crumble into breakdown is inevitable but her performance is natural, it doesn’t seem like a studied character piece but a believable disintegration. A scene in which she puts on a happy face for a customer just after crying uncontrollably in the stock room is just one of several astonishing moments in a film full of pain.
There simply aren’t enough superlatives to describe how good Colman is – an Oscar nomination wouldn’t go amiss (although it’s probably likely to be overlooked) but a Bafta seems absolutely assured.
There are one or two blips – Hannah raging at a portrait of Jesus seems too overdone and the necessity of a scene towards the end of the film is debatable but for acting, Tyrannosaur is unrivalled. It’s brutal, tense and powerful – by no means pleasant but easily one of the best British films of the year.