Some projects are for the actors first and the audience second, and 44 Inch Chest, the new film from director Malcolm Venville, is a solid example of that type of filmmaking -- a simple story where strong, sharply-drawn performances take precedent over anything else. It's evident by the executive producer credits of two of the leads in the film (Ray Winstone and Ian McShane) that this was put together as a means to showcase the acting talent of a more-than-capable ensemble.
Winstone plays violent thug Colin Diamond, who we first meet as he lays prone on the floor of his own trashed living room in a pile of broken furniture, near-catatonic while Harry Nilsson's cover of "Without You" blares over his hi-fi. He's physically carried away from the mess by his close friend Archie (Tom Wilkinson), but his mind is still a million miles away, trying to make some sense of the end of his twenty-year marriage to Liz (Joanne Whalley) who informed him just the night before that she's in love with another man.
Archie's solution to all of this one of violence, assuming Diamond will feel so much better if he can actually have his way with the ex's new lover. He assembles Diamond's closest confidants -- dim Mal (Stephen Dillane), fey Meredith (Ian McShane), and vile Old Man Peanut (John Hurt) -- for a makeshift cheer-up session with Diamond and a 44-inch chest that contains the kidnapped body of Liz's younger new beau (Dave Legeno).
Diamond is a frightening individual, seemingly capable of ripping the flesh from someone's body (as Diamond keeps threatening to do). It's certainly easy to relate to Winstone's character -- most of us have had our hearts broken -- but it's not easy to like him. He's every conflicted post-breakup emotion made flesh, a flexed muscle of alternating rage and sorrow that constantly threatens to either shut down completely or explode with fury, providing the film with its biggest conflict -- Will Diamond be able to end his temporary madness by killing this perfect stranger?
It's the nasty, complex kind of character work to be expected from writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto, who brought us Sexy Beast back in 2000. In fact, John Hurt's Old Man Peanut feels like a close cousin to Ben Kingsley's Don Logan; he's the beast minus the sexy. Apart from Winstone, Hurt makes the biggest impression, frantically spitting profanities from between his clacking, oversized dentures. Peanut is reprehensible -- easily the angriest, most violent member of this circle of thugs -- and Hurt is mesmerizing in the role.
McShane gets some good moments as well as the reptilian Meredith, an emotionless, shallow homosexual character that probably bordered on cliche on the printed page. McShane brings a masculinity to the role, in part due to the boozy rumble of his natural speaking voice, that just barely prevents the character from feeling like a stereotype. Archie, Mal, and Liz aren't nearly as well-defined as Diamond, Peanut, or Meredith, and, in the case of Whalley's Liz, the film stumbles for it. She's at the center of everyone's hatred, but the screenwriters only write her as a one-note adulteress. Had we understood Liz a little better, we could have understood Diamond a little better, and the film's deflated resolution might have had more punch,
For better or worse, 44 Inch Chest feels like a stage play. It's talky, it all takes place in one room (with a handful of flashbacks that don't really serve any real purpose other than getting us out of that room for a bit), it's a touch philosophical (but hardly as deep as it thinks that it is), and it's actor-driven. A good portion of the film is devoted to Winstone's inner monologue, with his friends representing different pieces of his broken heart, so those expecting a Guy Ritchie-styled gangster story may need to move along. The performances are definitely better than the movie as a whole, but 44 Inch Chest is still a unique entry in the UK crime drama sub-genre -- a deliberately stagy rumination on the price of revenge.