This review contains spoilers.
“An animal can only take so much punishment and humiliation before it snaps.”
I watched this for the first time a couple of weeks ago. It was a Monday morning and I was home sick from work. I knew nothing about the film, except that someone had recommended it to me a few years ago and it had been sitting on my computer ever since. For some reason I had it in my head that Tyrannosaur was a comedy, or at least a sort of comfortable-but-dull indie drama. Tyrannosaur is most certainly neither of these things (although there are a few lighter, funnier moments scattered throughout). For two weeks I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this film. Tyrannosaur is, in a word, excellent, and deserves (in my opinion) much more attention.
Tyrannosaur is the directorial debut of actor Paddy Considine, who also wrote the script. The film is set in the north of England where everything is dreary: as Jonathan Romney writes for The Independent in Tyrannosaur “even the daylight is grey.” The first character we meet is Joseph (played by Peter Mullan from Top of the Lake). Joseph has been living alone since the death of his wife, and he is full of violent rage. He is so angry at the world that in the film’s opening scene he kicks his own dog to death – an animal we quickly learn Joseph loved, and that was quite probably his only real friend. Joseph’s bubbling desperation leads him to Hannah (Olivia Colman), a Christian charity shop worker who – at first – seems to be Joseph’s polar opposite. It doesn’t take long for us to discover, however, that Hannah is even more of an emotional time bomb than Joseph, pushed closer and closer to breaking point by her abusive husband (Eddie Marsan).
If a film can have its main character murder no less than two dogs and still manage to keep him sympathetic it must be good (this is coming from someone who almost stopped watching Game of Thrones as soon as the first direwolf died). Tyrannosaur is not always easy viewing, but the storytelling and characters are so good that I just had to keep watching. There were a lot of moments that made me cringe or cry, but there were also a number of wonderful ‘Wow – that’s perfect!’ moments. The revelation of Joseph’s past violence towards his own wife, for example, just as he finds himself taking care of Hannah, not to mention Hannah’s own horrific twist at the end. There is a sense – as the film moves and develops – throughout Tyrannosaur of things being at once surprising and inevitable, which – to me – is storytelling at its best.
The title is of course a metaphor, and possibly one of the most beautiful and fitting I’ve seen in a film. Joseph describes how when his wife used to walk up the stairs (she was a large woman) he would see ripples in his cup of tea, like the water in the iconic T-Rex scene from Jurassic Park. This little speech not only serves to illustrate further what a (self-described) ‘cunt’ Joseph was to his wife, but also reflects all the major plot points of the film. These little ripples in life signify the approach of something devastating – and are often too easy to ignore. Hannah’s bruises, Joseph’s simmering anger, the dog across the street growing increasingly aggressive, even Joseph’s wife’s worsening diabetes.
It should also be noted how amazing both Mullan and Olivia Colman are in this. Particularly Colman. I’ve seen her in a couple of British comedies before, but never anything like this, and I was completely blown away by her performance.
Tyrannosaur is bleak, but it is not without hope. There are some lovely, kind moments that break up the violence and anger – such as Joseph hiding behind a clothes rack, the moment when Joseph gives Hannah some clothes, and the bittersweet carousing at Joseph’s friend’s wake. The ending – as Joseph walks along a sunny path after visiting Hannah – is perhaps the brightest part of the whole film (both literally and metaphorically). As Peter Bradshaw writes in The Guardian, Tyrannosaur is not a love story, but “it is not simply a hate story, either.” I finished this film feeling shocked, moved, impressed, and kind of annoyed that Tyrannosaur hasn’t gotten more attention. The night before I watched Tyrannosaur I saw the much talked about Birdman, and Tyrannosaur was far and away the better film. I think from now on I’m going to take much less notice of Oscar favourites, and much more notice of random films hiding in my Video folder.
Tyrannosaur, released in 2011, is an expansion of Paddy Considine’s short film Dog Altogether, which also stars Mullan and Colman.