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Mad Dogs and Englishmen

A Fantastic Beast

Soggy Beast: Ray Winstone soaks in paradise.

By Lee Gardner | Posted

Gary "Gal" Dove is an ex-gangster, with the emphasis on the "ex." Sexy Beast's opening sequence finds Gal (a beefy and blond-streaked Ray Winstone) poolside at his very own Spanish villa, clad only in a tight yellow bathing suit, baking away years of stress and British damp in the hot sun. An internal monologue, delivered in a thick, working-class English accent, offers a stream-of-consciousness narration of total indolence. Translation: Life is good. He loves his wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman), and it appears they sun and shop and play every day and dine with old pals Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and his wife, Jackie (Julianne White), every night.

But there are dark clouds gathering over Gal's sun-bleached paradise. An incident it would be a shame to reveal here puts his pool out of commission for a few days. And word arrives that an old colleague from London, Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), wants Gal to come out of retirement for one more job. You can tell from the tense and terrified looks on every deeply tanned face that Don is a hard man to turn down. Factor in a bravura job by first-time feature director Jonathan Glazer, an artful script by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, a brace of fantastic performances, and a malevolent rabbit man, and you have one surprising, funny, oddly touching film, not to mention one of the year's best so far.

Sexy Beast wouldn't work without open-faced ex-boxer Winstone, perhaps best-known in this country for playing monstrous fathers in bleak Brit films such as The War Zone and Nil By Mouth. Here he plays a patriarch-as-pussycat, radiating sweetness and charisma like a sunburn and loved by all, right down to his Spanish pool boy Enrique (Álvaro Monje). Gal's likability only heightens the tension when Don shows up.

Sporting a Mephistophelean goatee and a pool-cue-straight posture that makes him look like he's been perching on prison bunks half his life, waiting to do something terrible, Kingsley is a revelation. The actor won an Oscar for playing Mahatma Gandhi, but his Don is a vicious terrier of a man unburdened by social graces and emotions other than anger and spite. Determined to get his way, he cajoles, bullies, and threatens Gal, dripping poison on every relationship he holds dear almost as an afterthought. Before long, the film reveals that there's more to Don's Spanish sojourn than first appears, a subtext Kingsley plays, as he does every second of screen time, to absolute perfection.

In fact, Glazer takes sizeable risks with Don. The director made his name in flashy commercials and music videos, and Sexy Beast sports plenty of the post-Trainspotting stylistic razzle-dazzle that seems endemic to a similar stripe of young British directors. It's all here--a cheeky energy, a beat-fueled pop soundtrack, a fondness for a highly mobile camera and unusual angles, and the occasional surreal touch (like the malevolent rabbit man). But after establishing a nervy rhythm in the opening minutes, Glazer suddenly stalls the film's momentum. The jovial mood pales as Deedee, Aitch, and Jackie sit cowed while Gal and Don embark on a protracted mano-a-mano duel of words and wills that plays like Mamet and Pinter in a high-noon shootout. (The thick South London accents that make deciphering some of the dialogue a modest challenge are no problem in these scenes, which are also among the film's most grimly funny.) Glazer goes so far as to tip toward Don's point of view for a few audacious scenes, even following him onto the plane as he toddles off back to London.

It soon becomes clear, though, that the director's after bigger game with such feints (shades of Steven Soderbergh's The Limey). While Gal and Don grind it out, Glazer zips through several pages of what could have been stultifying exposition by skillfully cross-cutting between Gal's sunny terrace and the dark London underworld. And it turns out that the camera follows Don because it must in order to set up the chain of events that give the last third of the film its tension, twists, and considerable emotional payoff.

In spite of Glazer's show-off moments, Sexy Beast is not just another glib crime film. One of most pleasant and unexpected surprises here is the love story between Gal and Deedee that the director quietly crafts in his spare time. The couple shares a phone call that the finest English romantic poets would be hard-pressed to better under the circumstances, and all involved pull it off beautifully. (Redman is just one of several perfectly cast little-known British thespians who are marvelous in the smaller roles.) When the big heist--big enough to be the centerpiece of any other film--is finally set in motion, it's almost an anticlimax. All the tension and suspense are centered squarely on Gal's sun-kissed, tight-lipped moon face and how he's going to handle another sinister London gangster (Ian McShane in another indelible supporting performance) so that he can get back to his wife, his pool, and his hard-won life of doing nothing. In The Sopranos' Tony Soprano, American audiences have learned to embrace a lovable bear of a gangster despite the fact that he is immersed in crime and violence. It will be interesting to see what happens when they get a load of a lovable bear of a gangster who wants nothing more than to get out and stay out.

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