London Film Festival 2009: 44 INCH CHEST Review
First time feature director Malcolm Venville has managed to pull together a quite outstanding cast of core buddies to surround Winstone as the cuckolded, distraught Colin Diamond. John Hurt is cantankerous, embittered old man Peanut, perpetually bickering with Ian McShane's suave, gay Meredith. Tom Wilkinson's Archie lives with his Mum and is generally a jolly good chap - more than can be said for the belligerent Mal (Stephen Dellane). Along the way we're also treated to a fabulous cameo from Stephen Berkoff.
When an enraged Colin beats the name of wife Liz's lover out of her, the band of friends get together to kidnap the French "fucking wife-fucker" and let Colin do his worst. They hole up in a boarded up East End house where the drama unravels in resolutely stagey fashion. The friends are defined by where they sit on a spectrum of masculinity rather than by any elaborate back story. From Peanut's anachronistic, old world man's man, to Meredith's predatory homosexual, they all curiously take the same line on punishment for Colin's wife and her young lover. It's then left to Winstone to weigh up the dilemma over a not inconsiderable quantity of brandy. Bar the occasional flash back when time-passing anecdotes are recounted to the group, the action is confined to the kidnap house. In doing so Venville allows the actors to shine and the witty, playful dialogue to take centre stage, the down side being that any lapses in pace or structural failings are quickly felt. With such a bare canvas for the actors, they need to be at the top of their game and thankfully they overwhelmingly are (remarkably, none dominating) with Winstone at the centre. There's no action or scenery to distract from the emotional core of the film, and Winstone is superb, an extraordinary bloated specimen, tragically unable to comprehend the demise of his marriage, veering from disbelief, to anger, to melancholy with aplomb.
Where 44 Inch Chest falls short is in the closing stages of Colin's emotional evolution. As a narrative, the film fizzles out with a surreal climax that, whilst certainly amusing, feels out of kilter with preceding events as though the script ran out of steam. Likewise, the masculinity of the characters isn't so much explored, as described, leaving you unsure as to whether the film really has that much to say about it besides presenting some different (mostly negative) interpretations.
When it does work though, and for much of the 94 minutes it really does, it's a hilarious volley of quick-fire, foul-mouthed poetic banter evidenced best as the lads set to work intimidating the unfortunate "loverboy". Reminiscent of Kingsley's rant in Sexy Beast its sheer relentless momemtum is comic gold. So too, the friends' vignettes work well as entertainments in their own right and there's a joy in watching the cream of British cinema in one room. It doesn't feel quite as cohesive a film as it could have been, but is nonetheless a thoroughly entertaining one.