Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Wild Bill and the importance of fatherhood

The East End of London is a familiar backdrop to the gangster, hard man film genre. But in Dexter Fletcher’s gritty and accomplished first movie, Wild Bill, the sink estates and building sites around the Olympic stadium provide his action with an emotional content and resonance. Fletcher introduces us to a part of London that is under reconstruction and this mirrors the moral project of the film’s central character, “Wild” Bill Hayward (Charlie Creed-Miles).

Bill is attempting to reconstruct his life after being banged up for eight years in Parkhurst prison for robbery and GBH. He is out on licence and planning to go straight. The question is will he be allowed to break with old-style East End omertà or will he be sucked back into the underworld of drug dealing and casual violence?

The ex-con returns to his family but finds that it is also in need of some radical reconstruction. His wife has run off to Spain with a fancy man, leaving behind her two sons, 15 year old Dean (Will Poulter) and 11 year old Jimmy (Sammy Williams). Dean has been acting as both father and mother to his younger brother while living a covert existence beneath the radar of social services in order to avoid being taken into care. Bill’s return releases in Dean all the repressed anger at his father’s desertion.

Yet, without Bill’s presence, Dean and Jimmy will be at the mercy of social services. Bill must learn from scratch how to be a father and his sons must learn to love and respect him as such. This is not a cosmetic makeover, but something that goes to the heart of how they understand themselves. The relationship between Bill and his sons develops a tensile strength like no other and gives a unique order to their relationship.

Wild Bill is set in a macho environment where threat and force have become flaccid expressions of manhood. The flexing of tattooed East End muscle and menacing attitudes look Neanderthal. But, in the fatherhood of Bill and the response of his sons, we glimpse the inherent dignity of the masculine, where true strength is manifested in care, protection, tenderness and playfulness. Without sermonising, Wild Bill reminds us that young lads do well to have real dads. They benefit and so does society.

Dialogue as sharp as a Stanley knife and raw performances make Wild Bill all that and a bag of chips. It’s not scared to take on the Lock, Stock and Two Barrels clichés and credits its audience with intelligence and wit. This film can more than handle itself and deserves to be widely seen. Imagine The Wire set in Newham. Yes, it is that good. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dexter Fletcher and Creed-Miles replace their hoodies and trackie bottoms for something a little sharper as they pick up shiny gongs at awards ceremonies in the coming year.

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