The War Zone
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   C R I S S A - J E A N   C H A P P E L L

All sunsets are frauds. Just the illusion of a miracle. Some believe the colors contain lithium. That's why it feels good to study the day's demise. The same could be said of children. Do they ever really grow old? Or have they entered the world with secret wisdom forgotten in time?

Today's youth-oriented culture prays at the teen altar. From the slippery pages of fashion magazines, a swarm of children glower back at us--their sleek bodies devoid of curves, their bony faces devoid of emotion. On television, they suffer the same woes as adults. During commercials, they drape themselves over cars (which they cannot drive) or grown-up toys, such as cell phones (which they cannot afford), and explain how we might imitate their fleeting style. These uber-teens disguise themselves in various costumes. We can make them into anything we want. But rarely do they appear in their natural state--which is little more than human.

Lara Belmont as Jessie
Tim Roth's directorial debut, The War Zone, (adapted from the brave and controversial book by fellow Brit Alexander Stuart) deftly tackles a delicate topic that filmmakers have frequently romanticized--the dilemma of incest. So often, in their never-ending quest for titillating material, directors have turned to sexual relations between parents and children. Why should this come as a surprise? As teenagers (particularly young girls) grow more and more sexualized by the media, it only makes sense that incest has adapted a new-sprung aura of mystique.

The Victorians, in spite of their prudish reputation, had a special fondness for the subject (take Byron's epic poem "Manfred," for example). They considered it a near-perfect form of sexual expression (best manifested between siblings) because it represented a type of self-love. Recent filmmakers could've taken cues from their 19th century counterparts.

Lara Belmont and Ray Winstone
Suddenly, incest doesn't seem so terrible. Atom Egoyan lensed a soft-focus love scene between a dashing dad and his all-too-willing daughter in The Sweet Hereafter. A teenaged son fantasizes about his voluptuous mother in David O. Russell's hilarious satire Spanking the Monkey. Many films have made use of incest for specific purposes (whether in jest or social commentary) but few have successfully captured the brutal ugliness of sexual abuse. Why? Because film is a visual medium--which makes it difficult to film something as atrocious as rape without lending it a "sexy" gloss.

The War Zone manages to sidestep this common error with graceful ease. It begins on the battlefield of the family home. Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), with his spotty, fish-colored complexion and doomy demeanor, is hardly anyone's depiction of an ideal teenage male. He suspects that his promiscuous older sister, Jessie (Lara Belmont), is hoarding a loathsome secret. Tensions are further elevated in scenes underscoring casual semi-nakedness in the household. While cameras are usually considered "masculine" and "heterosexual" in their hungry depiction of femalehood, the lens that settles on Tom's very pregnant mother (the remarkable Tilda Swinton, known for playing male and female roles in Orlando) is stark and unflattering (translation: unsexy). Women's bodies are depicted in various stages of life (from the newborn baby stained in sickness; to the expectant mother, swollen with life; to the beautiful teen girl whose all-too-womanly breasts are peppered with cigarette scorches).

So much in the film is conveyed with little dialogue (credited to Stuart's spare, minimalist script) that every gesture, every gaze weighs heavily. (And since the film is directed by an actor, what else could we expect?) Seamus McGarvey's surreal cinematography permeates everything with greenish-blue tones, as if filming underwater. This suits the self-enclosed atmosphere, making the characters and their problems seem isolated from the rest of the world (also hinted by the lack of visible technology in the household, such as TVs or radios).

"I felt sorry for the kids," said Roth at the Ft. Lauderdale film festival last November (the "kids" in question being his thespian newcomers). Because the characters' anguish is so horrific, it registers as inexpressible.

Freddie Conliffe as Tom
Belmont (who bears a surprising resemblance to Swinton) commands attention with every subtle movement. The memory of pain constantly pulsates behind her washed-out eyes. Cunliffe is a courageous presence, always on the edge of explosion, yet emotionally straitjacketed. In an early scene, the family peels down a country road, racing to the hospital. As his mother lapses into labor, her shrieks racking the car, Tom pops his head through the sunroof, seemingly oblivious to all but the windswept landscape (the sort that appear in romantic poems by Sir Walter Scott). Even the foamy sea seems hard-edged and dangerous, as if the waves could hack a person in half. Nature is cruel, but crueler are the unnatural acts committed by our fellow human beings. There are no sunsets. There are no secrets known to babies. There are no explanations.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Movie Web site: THE WAR ZONE



Photos: (© Lot 47 Films. All rights reserved.)