The War Zone is dark, bleak and profoundly painful to watch. How could a film focused honestly on the subject of incestuous parental abuse be otherwise? The War Zone is also one of the most beautifully made films of the year, nothing less than a triumphant directorial debut for actor Tim Roth, who gets every detail just right.
Based on a novel by Alexander Stuart, the film is told principally from the point of view of fifteen year old Tom, a quiet, brooding, acne-pocked adolescent played by Freddie Cunliffe with an understated intensity that grows more powerful as the film progresses towards a climax that has the inevitability of Greek tragedy.
Tom’s family has moved from London to Devon where they are isolated both socially and geographically. His older sister, Jessie (Lara Belmont), looks forward to her return to college in London with good reason – it will be her escape from a living hell that is only gradually disclosed during the film. Their mother, played by Tilda Swinton, is pregnant. Her baby girl is born in an overturned car – they have an accident while rushing her to the hospital, an accident from which the entire family miraculously survives.
On the surface, it seems a normal enough family. The father (Ray Winstone) is caring, solicitous; the mother is loving, if distracted by the new baby and unsuspicious of what is happening in her household. Detail by careful detail Roth gets underneath the surface appearances. The War Zone is novelistic in the way it builds understanding of the characters through an accumulation of observations and incident: Mum always with a glass of wine to hand, casual nudity amongst members of the family, Tom’s own budding sexuality, a visit to the beach by Jessie and Tom with a date Jessie has picked up in a local pub, a show of violent temper by the father.
Once Tom knows what is going on, and confronts Jessie with his knowledge, Roth shows the depth of pain and the psychological devastation that both teenagers suffer. Trapped in the position of dependent children within the family structure, they have no model for escape. The offense is so great, the taboo so strong, there is no place to turn. Jessie is reduced to self-inflicted pain – both to punish herself and to reignite feelings deadened by the overwhelming sorrow of powerlessness in the face of unspeakable victimization.
Roth permits pauses in conversations, silences between words. He remains for just the right amount of extended time after the action of a scene finishes and before moving on to the next. It is storytelling that respects the viewer, that allows an observation to sink in without rushing on, but without lingering into artiness, either. He draws acutely believable performances from his four talented principals – two veterans, two newcomers.
The lush cinematography by Seamus McGarvey (also memorable in Alan Rickman’s underrated The Winter Guest) captures landscapes of the rainy, windblown coast of Devon, sensuously saturated with dark blues and greens and greys. Long threads of white road run over the hillsides near the sea; the ruggedness of the coast and the family home starkly white against the surrounding darkness all enhance a palpable sense of isolation. And the concrete bunker perched on a seaside cliff is at ground zero of a war zone for Jessie and Tom, both of them as scarred and full of pain from the battles within as were the mutilated veterans of the conflict that left this structure in its wake.