Writers: Danny King, Dexter Fletcher
Stars: Charlie Creed-Miles, Will Poulter and Sammy Williams
“You don’t think all the places you’re hiding in now, I wasn’t hiding in 20 years ago?”
This may not exactly sound like an epoch defining moment in cinema but 2011 film Wild Bill saw Dexter Fletcher (most famous for his role in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and a failed stint as presenter of GamesMaster back in the 90s) enter the directing ring for the first time.
Now wipe that look of indifference from your face because on this evidence this is a talented and intuitive writer/director with a lot to offer.
Perhaps fittingly given the cockney gangster connections there are shades of Guy Richie running through this first outing, most evident in the low level gangster characters which populate the local “boozer”. Given the frankly shit marketing this film has received (the trailer is an embarrassment of cockneyism) and the swaggering stylish opening scenes, a certain amount of worry does begin to creep in that this is going to be a cheap knock off version of Snatch. Thankfully this simply proves to be nothing more than a few aesthetic tricks and techniques which have been passed on, and is certainly be no bad thing. However, it is important to establish that Wild Bill is anything but a cheeky chappie ‘mockney’ knees up, and there is absolutely no sign of Vinnie Jones anywhere.
The story is beautifully written. The tone shares the same sympathetic ethos towards the working class as a Ken Loach film or Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Red Road) rather than over the top tragedy or the horror-hoodie’s of Harry Brown, and is shot in a similar gritty and hard edged style. By weaving several sub plots through the main story the structure is not so dissimilar to This Is England, creating an impressive level of depth to the characters and their community. It is the kind of subtle epic that British cinema seems so adept at, working entirely within the everyday relationships and problems faced by people at the bottom of society but somehow crafting a story of shifting roles as the characters deal with outside threats. And, also like This Is England, it feels like a story which has the potential to be continued in many different directions, with a lot of threads left dangling by the end, and of course the mysteries surrounding Bill’s own legendary past.
The story is born out of the legacy of an absent father figure, and how his young boy seeks to fill the void. On the good side is his own older brother, a 15 year old forced to grow up well beyond his years, struggling to act as both admonishing mother and bread earning father for his unruly sibling. On the bad and slightly more tempting side are a group of local gangsters with their allure of macho bravado, respect and money. The unknown element comes in the shape of the young boys actual father. A notorious “legend” in the local area, known alternatively as Wild Bill or Mad Bill, he returns home from a long stint in prison only to make it clear he is looking to run away again as quickly as possible. When his plans of flight are dashed Bill becomes increasingly entangled in the lives of his estranged boys.
The three central roles are played with intense honesty and earnest intimacy. As Wild Bill, Chalie Creed-Miles puts on a performance of affability mixed with hapless irresponsibility and the suspicion of hidden violence. It is an unforgettable performance which begs the question of why he hasn’t landed a key role until now despite years appearing as minor characters in various cockney gangster films. Young actors Will Poulter and Sammy Williams also star as Bill’s two neglected sons, who in the first half carry much of the drama, and give the kind of honest and realistic performances we can only usually hope in vain for a child actor to deliver.
There are one or two notable rough edges which could have done with being ironed out, but they are only ever minor quibbles which do not really diminish what is an otherwise beautifully shot and emotionally affecting experience.
One or two of the amateur actors do not quite match the high levels of the main performances and, not wanting to be unfair, they are usually the younger supporting child actors. The tried and tested method of drawing a supporting cast from real life locals to capture that hard to recreate feeling of authenticity is difficult to get right. Shane Meadows has become a master of it, and his films are testament that when done right it can give a film an unique edge, but more often than not it is noticeably awkward. Wild Bill has a mixed result but when the leads are so successful it doesn’t really matter.
There are also a couple of periphery characters of a slightly madcap, larger-than-life nature; ridiculous caricatures seemingly brought in to provide nothing but comic releif. Andy Serkis gives his big gangster boss a ridiculously wild eyed psychopathic nature which does as little to amuse as it does intimidate, while Iwan Rheon’s white boy wannabe black gangster ultra-Chav, comes across as an Ali G impression rather than a threatening hoodie. In another more “mockney” style film these characters might have won a few laughs but they feel out of place in what is an otherwise brooding and immersive recreation of East London. The need for such obvious comic relief is also debatable given that the screen play contains enough sarcasm and local whit to raise the necessary laughs.
Also slightly irritating is the decision to cast an incredibly attractive girl in the role as love interest to the older brother. Though a good enough actor it is another unauthentic casting decision which doesn’t make any sense until there is a pointless scene which resembles an FHM photo shoot.
Despite these forgivable and fairly inconsequential gripes Wild Bill is a thoroughly surprising gem of a film which doesn’t deserve to be lumped along side the more throw away cockney bollocks. It has far more heart, far more grit, and far more realism. A lot can now be expected of Dexter’s follow up.