Essex Boys - Review

by Julie Kimpton and Heather Williams

Last Update: 05 April 2000
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Warning! Spoilers!

It looks like scissors cutting a light silk curtain, but somehow you know it must be a knife ripping through flesh. With the cloying agony of fingernails clawing down a blackboard, as soon as the opening titles hit the screen, you know that Essex Boys is going to be no easy ride.

Essex Boys is a snapshot of life in the Essex underworld, narrated by Billy Reynolds (Charlie Creed-Miles), a young taxi driver who is hired by John Dyke (Tom Wilkinson) as a driver for Jason Locke (Sean Bean), a local villain who has just been released from a five year prison sentence.

Billy is a wannabe on the periphery of Locke's shady world. He has carried out small delivery jobs for Dyke in the past with no questions asked, and is impressed by the glamour of Locke's lifestyle. He's envious of the big cars, the money, and - absurdly - that he manages to get into nightclubs without queuing.

This is the life that Billy yearns after. This is what he wants. But he soon sees that it goes way beyond that. His naive ideals of a glamorous lifestyle are quickly shattered as he realizes he's in way too deep - and that being part of Locke's circle has a very uncompromising downside.

Jason Locke is a man with absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Unflinching in its dialogue and depiction, Essex Boys is a brilliantly acted portrayal of the lives of a disparate group of villains who form the underbelly of Essex society. Occasionally, this uncompromising inside look makes the hairs on the back of your neck prickle. At times, it is not an easy film to watch, and there are scenes of frighteningly realistic violence. There are moments when Sean Bean's character is relentless in his brutality, letting fly with a viciousness that is almost palpable.

"Jason is a volatile time-bomb just waiting to go off," Sean says. "He's headstrong and very temperamental. He will fly off the handle without notice, and it's this unpredictability that makes him very dangerous to be around."

Too true. His performance was disturbingly believable.

Director Terry Winsor adds, "The violence is pretty real, and it's not done for fun."

Terry Winsor's direction is a masterpiece. He has equated it to Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, and there will inevitably be comparisons with Gary Oldman's recent Nil by Mouth. But unlike the factual, documentary style of Scorsese's film, or the fly-on-the-wall approach of Oldman, Winsor and co-writer-producer Geoff Pope have gone for a style that is largely driven by narrative.

Sean has worked with Winsor before, in Fools Gold, and seems to work well with his style of direction. Winsor said that the film was not written with particular cast members in mind, but then he backtracks somewhat: "I kind of had Sean at the back of my mind as I'd worked with him before. There was always something that seemed to come back to the qualities that he could offer, and then it became a natural process to offer the part to him."

Those who remember Sean Bean only from roles such as Mellors, the gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley, and Sharpe, where he plays the hero, famous for getting out of his clothes and into bed with the ladies, might be disappointed by Essex Boys. But fans of Sean Bean (an actor of consummate skill and considerable range - witness Caravaggio, The Field and Clarissa) will be stunned by his performance as the volatile, brutal Locke.

The relationship between Jason Locke and his wife Lisa (Alex Kingston) is an important part of the plot, and their interaction is explored in some depth. Lisa is a very strong character; she has to be, to survive in Locke's world. Several scenes involve Lisa being violently assaulted by Locke, who is paranoid that she has "played away" during his time inside.

Alex Kingston was understandably nervous about filming some of these scenes, but found that working with Sean made the process easier. "I'm an instinctive actress, and watching Sean he seems to be an instinctive actor too. He's very at home physically with his body. We seemed to work together well as a couple - we were well matched."

All the characterisations in the film are excellently scripted, and written with considerable depth. Charlie Creed-Miles plays Billy with aplomb, his naive desire to get "in" with the villains leading him to carry out ever more brutal acts, which he continually tries to explain away. One of the most difficult characters to assess is that of Dyke (Tom Wilkinson) - you never quite feel you have got his full measure. Wilkinson skilfully brings out these incongruities in his portrayal of Dyke as a seemingly soft-touch with a steely core.

The film was inspired by a real life incident in which police found three men shot dead in a Range Rover. However, the writers are keen to stress that is a fictional study of the events leading to that night. "Those are real people with real families," Pope says, "so we didn't want to make it that story."

In fact, this could have been any place, at any time; but armed with their inspiration, the writers adapted their ideas to an Essex setting, where camera shots of boggy marshes and spreading mud flats lend themselves wonderfully to an atmosphere which at times is exceptionally bleak.

The result is a fast-moving story with a plot that, at first, seems to follow the standard gangster movie trail of heist and subsequent cross and double cross.

But there are unexpected twists and stings in the tail which confound us as much as they seem to confound Billy, our guide though this nightmare world.

A couple of moments are reminiscent of Michael Caine's narrative to camera in Alfie, and though Essex Boys is infinitely darker in approach, the film's cynical portrait of street life is just as observant. Like Alfie, Billy addresses us directly, and casually, as though this might be familiar ground to us. We've been away for a while and just need to catch up with what's been going on. His narrative is a useful scripting tool, which links the various parts of the film together and furthers the storyline in a very effective way.

Seeing things from Billy's point of view helps us to understand what life in his situation would be like...the uncertainty, the horrors, the pain and the laughter.

And there is a lot of humour in Essex Boys. It's black humour - to match the tone of the film - but it's there and it makes you laugh, wryly, at the fact that these characters still have time for levity in their lives.

A large proportion of the film's scenes were shot at night, but this isn't a problem. The results are excellent - we don't have to peer into the darkness to see what is happening or bend our heads forward to hear what is being said. The dialogue is completely understandable; the action is well-lit and clear.

Confession time: this was not a film, given other circumstances, that we would have chosen to go and see. It's not "our" type of film. We would have prejudged it as a Big Mistake.

I'm glad to say we were very, very wrong. Essex Boys is a gripping, compelling story. We need to know what is going to happen to each of the characters: we feel compelled to locate the victims, but we're thwarted at every turn, as each seemingly innocent personality reveals a new and ever more tainted layer.

Essex Boys is a film about betrayal. Ultimately, everyone betrays someone, and, in turn, they are also betrayed. Life in this underworld has no Hollywood-style happy endings; there are no morality tale rules that dictate good must always triumph over evil.

"Pete says it's good. But then Pete always says it's good," several presumed acquaintances of Essex Boys' PR guru were overheard remarking before the film screening began.

Don't worry, Pete: this time you were perfectly right. This is a film which deserves to be a huge success.

Because the miracle of Essex Boys is that you do actually care what happens to such
irredeemably abominable characters. Because, in the end, they're victims - all of them.

Click here for the detailed storyline of Essex Boys.

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