(director: Tim Roth; screenwriters: from book by Alexander Stuart/Alexander Stuart; cinematographer: Seamus Mcgarvey; editor: Trevor Waite; cast: Ray Winstone (Dad), Tilda Swinton (Mum), Lara Belmont (Jessie), Freddie Cunliffe (Tom), Aisling O’Sullivan (Carol), Colin Farrell (Nick); Runtime: 98; Lot 47 Films/Portobello Pictures; 1999-USA/Ger./UK)

“A grim drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Warning: spoilers to follow throughout.

It’s not possible to write this review fairly without revealing the key problematic elements of the film, though I believe these spoilers will not ruin the viewing; yet, some might prefer to read the review after seeing the film.

The War Zone is located in an isolated Devon farmhouse, where a family of four is undergoing a crisis after they have moved here recently from London. The family is comprised of the following members: the nurturing Earth Mother (Tilda Swinton); Ray Winstone is the father who can’t keep his hands off his 18-year-old daughter; Jessie (Lara Belmont) is the oldest child who is trapped in an incestuous relationship; Tom is her 15-year-old, brooding, younger brother who hates living in the country. He confronts his sister that he knows what’s going on and doesn’t approve.

This makes for a grim drama that is intelligently directed by actor Tim Roth in his first directorial effort, as adapted from the novel by Alexander Stuart, who also did the screenplay. The performances, as well as the photography of the haunting countryside are first-rate. But nothing particularly insightful materializes. Somehow after all the grimness of this sexually abusive story plays out and we see all the graphic details, the story still doesn’t grab me emotionally as much as I wanted it to.

In an early scene, there’s a hint of the violence that is to come when Mum goes into labor and dad packs the family into the car to speed her to the hospital; but, when his attention is diverted by a family squabble he overturns the car. This causes scrapes and bruises to all, but Mum gives birth to baby Alice.

Back home the dramatics are increasingly played out by Tom and Jessie, with a dismally rainy Devon countryside in the background. Jessie denies Tom’s charges, perhaps out of shame or maybe that’s the way most victims of abuse react to facing the shameful truth. But Tom follows them one day to a deserted bunker along the beautiful ocean coastline and clearly sees dad poking his sis up the butt, in what must be viewed as a repugnant consensual rape.

The story plays out as the sexually frustrated Tom doesn’t know quite how to drop this bombshell as he flashes silent hatred for dad and contempt for his tormented sis, and pity for his warm-hearted Mum. She might have an inkling or might not, about what is happening to her daughter. The tension slowly builds in a household that appears outwardly as a loving one. It pits the brutish Winstone against the determination of his devastated children to stop him. Unfortunately, the story and the characterizations can’t ferret out more to this story except what Tom despairingly utters to his sis after tragedy hits them: What are we going to do now? This doesn’t leave the audience much room to do anything but gasp at the shameful situation.

The War Zone Poster