44 Inch Chest
by Richard von Busack
Louis Mellis and David Scinto (of Sexy Beast) here have a dark-comic script is clearly about actors interacting with one another. The debuting director, Malcolm Venville, copes well with the fact that what we have here is a filmed play, with several of the loose cannons of the English stage firing at each other.
A London made man Colin (Winstone) has been cuckolded: his buddies have kidnapped the waiter who slept with Colin’s wife (Joanne Whalley), kidnapped him, and stuffed him in a wardrobe in their hideout, a disused building next to the gasworks. During the course of a long booze-sodden night, they’re deciding what to do with the home-wrecker. The situation has a nasty undertone: the presence of an openly gay member of the gang (Ian McShane, the film’s standout) indicates that the victim maybe sentenced to the classic Roman punishment for adulterers: summary buggery, a fate some would say was worse than crucifixion.
The ancientness of the situation and the terrible pagan justice considered is reflected in incidentals: the neo-classical façade of a gambling club; McShane’s ironical “Saluta” as he gives a senatorial ave to the gang, and the scenes taken from DeMille’s sensationally kitschy Samson and Delilah (1949).
And then there’s the matter of the 5 AM exteriors: brick walls, empty streets, the distant barking of outraged dogs. It’s a city landscape that hasn’t changed much since the Caesars. And the condemned waiter, hands tied and folded in front of him, is slumped in the ecce homo pose, like Jesus in a painting…and mocked like him, too.
At times the speech trips like the so-called blank verse in Force of Evil (1948): “I just can’t believe it, it’s unbelievable isn’t it” or, most quotable and less printable: “You f’d his f’ing wife, you wife f’er.” Mostly the dialogue is a fountain of profanity—delivered beautifully, as fans of Deadwood know, by McShane.
His Meredith has the advantage of the criminals here for being out and proud. Everyone else is in dread for their manhood.
Zestily evil is Hurt as a cackling old Tiberius called Old Man Peanut. Tom Wilkinson is a pleasure, playing a gentle thickhead who still lives with Mom. Stephen Dillane has the customary Stephen Dillane part: standing around waiting to be directed to do something. Winstone is a phenomena at the worst of times, but he gives a monologue about marriage that you expect actors will be quoting for years; he’s the torn-up, merciful soul of this exercise of words and Roman decadence in today’s London.