To call Tyrannosaur dark would be an understatement: This tale of dogs, drunks, death and psychological damage arrives blanketed in so much pain that the only time we see its characters happy is at a funeral. They're probably thinking that the afterlife holds more promise than the life they're living now.
And who can blame them, when every day is a struggle with violence of one sort or another? From the opening scene, in which a dog is kicked to death by its furious master, the agonies pile up to engulf humans and animals alike. Leading the misery is Joseph (the great Peter Mullan), a frequently pickled widower -- his obese late wife inspires the film's cruel title -- and occasional pooch-killer. Late in the film, a second, more deserving beast will bear the brunt of his rage, this time courtesy of a baseball bat.
"An animal can only take so much humiliation before it snaps," Joseph tells us in voice-over, nailing the film's theme and preparing us for even more savagery. Before it comes, though, he meets Hannah (Olivia Colman), an abused wife who escapes her wealthy, delusional husband (Eddie Marsan) for a few hours each day by working in a Christian charity shop. Hannah believes in charity, breaking out a prayer for Joseph when she finds him cowering beneath a rail of ratty clothes. Whoever this interloper is -- perhaps crazy, perhaps just suffering from the DTs -- Hannah is unafraid. She's seen scarier male behavior.
Set on the abject streets of Leeds in Northern England, Tyrannosaur unfolds with classic British get-me-a-pint-and-shut-your-trap grimness, its scenes seething with accumulated hurt. Developing his award-winning 2007 short film Dog Altogether, the actor Paddy Considine (best known here for In America) tempers his open-wound script with a coolheaded filming style that's almost sweetly old-fashioned.
Unlike the characters, the film's shots are calm and composed, almost meditative; there are no canted camera angles or jangling cuts, and much of the violence occurs off-screen. In one scene, as Joseph sits silently by the bedside of a dying friend, the man's daughter (Sally Carman) conveys a lifetime of resentment in no more than a dozen words and a single look.
At its tortured heart, Tyrannosaur is a love story disguised as blunt instrument. The fragile connection between Joseph and Hannah, both forged and threatened by the brutality that swirls around them, is sold with performances of electrifying authenticity and emotional richness. While Mullan is no stranger to the role of damaged sod -- most memorably in Ken Loach's My Name is Joe -- Colman's wheelhouse is television comedy (Peep Show, The Office), so her immersion in the damaged character of Hannah is revelatory.
Propelled by male rage but softened by Considine's big-hearted understanding of his characters — Joseph's friendship with an endangered neighbor boy is touchingly humanizing -- this bruising slice of urban life rewards our patience. Hope flickers feebly, but it's there: As Hannah silently endures her husband's unwanted attentions, his sweaty assault is hidden from view. What we notice instead is the tiny silver cross winking on her neck. (Recommended) Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.