Saturday, 28 November 2009

The Overlooked Hotel: Face (1997)

The Overlooked Hotel is a new series from Elliptical Edits, where we take a second look at a film we feel deserves a wider audience than it got on its original release. And yes, the title is a nod to King and Kubrick.

In my first post on Elliptical Edits, I made a reference to Face, and thought it would be worth a post of its own. Released in the autumn of 1997 it seems, at first glance to be a fairly run of the mill generic heist gone wrong film, but a closer look reveals a little more.

Starring Robert Carlyle as Ray, a former socialist activist turned armed robber, the film takes place over two days showing the build up and aftermath of a raid on a security depot in west London.

The film was directed by Antonia Bird, and marked her return to British cinema after making Mad Love in the US (and though that film was not a success in critical or commercial terms, when she appeared on Inside the Actors Studio, Drew Barrymore said her character in that film was the closest she has ever come to playing herself in a film). I would argue Face failed at the box office because, released just a month after The Full Monty, audiences didn't want to see Robert Carlyle as a criminal at that point. If it had been released a year later, in the wake of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels it may have faired better, though it is very different in tone to that film. It could be described as a less stylised, British Reservoir Dogs; both films share a similar storyline and feature a fictional radio show on the soundtrack, though in Face it's Billy Bragg rather than K-Billy's Super Sounds of the 70s that gets the characters talking.

Opening with Ray and his colleague Dave (Ray Winstone) turning up on a London council estate, the sound of a police radio and the fact that Ray has a warrant card leads us to believe they are police officers. Turning over a drug dealer, he tells them he's "experienced the old bill, and they don't usually come on this strong", even on a bad day. The words are given an extra piquancy when you realise the character is played by Gerry Conlon. (The writer of the film, Ronan Bennett, also spent time in prison for a crime he didn't commit.)

The politics of the film perhaps also give a clue to why the film didn't succeed. Wearing its leftist principles on its sleeve (though Bird, in the DVD commentary to the film says the “Vote Labour” billboard was only included because it happened to be at the location they were shooting), it may have seemed a tad dated in the autumn of 1997, with an as yet undiscredited Labour government in power, it looked like some characters were fighting battles that had already been won. A character's speech about there being no public servants and no public service at the end of the film may have seemed out of place when it first appeared, now it just seems like Peter Mandelson's claim that “We are all Thatcherite now” almost five years before he actually said it. Ray has to be the only armed robber in history to have posters for Ken Loach films on his walls.

Ray and Dave's gang are completed by reliable character actor Phil Davis as the unhinged Julian (don't call him Julie), Steven Waddington as the slow but loyal Stevie, and making his screen acting debut as Jason, the youngest of the team, a certain Damon Albarn (his best line? On dance music, he says “It's just noise, isn't it? Stops you thinking.”).

Though there is a moment – a brief montage – that borders on glamourising the crime the gang are committing, more often than not it makes armed robbery look a bit pathetic as a career, and the gang a bit amateur (Jason crunches the gears on the van as they drive to the security depot they are robbing, and it takes two attempts to break through the wall). In the pub after the raid, when the arguments have already started about how the money will be split up, Ray tells Jason the downside of his chosen career – he's spent five years in prison and could have earned double driving a van or a minicab.

When Dave turns up bloodied and having his share of the loot stolen, the gang implode into accusations and in-fighting, with the police hot on their tail. A shoot out in the street is based on the one in Michael Mann's Heat, with the action transposed from Los Angeles to suburban Haringey.

Knowing the game is up, Ray goes to his activist mother, Sue Johnston, for money and a car. After telling her “They won.” She dresses him down and asks “Who do you think you are, Robin Hood?” He replies with “Well, we don't always give to the poor, but we do rob the rich”, a version of which would appear, two years later, as the tag line to the Carlyle starring Plunkett & Macleane.

The end, following a shoot out in a Police Station, is downbeat but, ultimately, hopeful. One could speculate what would happen to the characters, and what sort of life they cold lead after the events of the film, but you imagine those that survive will somehow make a fresh start.

Bird reunited with Carlyle for the cannibal thriller Ravenous (for which Albarn, teaming up with Michael Nyman, produced the soundtrack). She and Bennett (who worked on the script for Public Enemies, uniting him with Michael Mann, the director of Heat that he paid homage to in Face) would reunite for television's The Hamburg Cell, telling the story of the 9/11 hijackers. Lena Headey, here appearing as Ray's youth worker girlfriend, would eventually find success in 300 and on television in The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Carlyle has also moved into TV, starring in the latest Stargate series. In fact with the exception of Winstone, most the cast and crew seem to have forged a career in television. Though it works as a feature film, one wonders if Face would not have been better served as a the sort of one off TV drama they sadly don't seem to make anymore. It was part financed by the BBC, and to have it remembered as a great television play would surely be a better fate than to be forgotten as a film. Still, check it out, you won't be disappointed.

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