Tim Roth's first feature, which focuses on harrowing scenes of domestic violence and rent-a-thug Ray Winstone waving his fists, is likely to draw comparisons with Gary Oldman's directorial debut Nil By Mouth. But this adaptation of Alexander Stuart's controversial novel deserves far more respect, and has already been received favourably at the Cannes, Berlin and Sundance Film Festivals.
The War Zone is a brooding, acutely observed and often upsetting rites-of-passage drama, seen through the eyes of the sexually awakening Tom, who is incapable of finding emotional comfort within his bleak home after the arrival of his baby sister. Roth inventively tackles the uncomfortable subjects of child abuse and incest, and delivers a sharp twist - 18-year-old daughter Jessie is hardly your conventionally passive victim.
Bold cinematography and a taut, pared-down script are combined with assured and sharply defined characters. The use of newcomers Cunliffe and Belmont is a brilliant casting stroke , and their performances capture the anguish and confusion of their stark situation with clarity. Winstone gives yet another powerhouse performance with his searingly honest depiction of love and grotesque brutality, while Swinton offers faultless support.
The backdrop of evocative, romantic wilderness further accentuates the emotional corruption underlying this otherwise respectable family unit. Admittedly, the sombre Waves Crashing Against The Shore photography smacks of heavy-handed symbolism. But throughout, the claustrophobic narrative remains psychologically accurate, never veering into tacky titillating exploitation. The result is an uncompromising and disturbingly resonant drama that refrains from moralising - but still has a very powerful message to offer.