44 Inch Chest
Film review by: Witney Seibold
A post-modern gangster flick that all centers on a single act of anticipated violence, Malcolm Venville’s “44-Inch Chest” is a theatrical tour-de-force from its actors, but feels like an unfinished script from its writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto, the scribes behind the underappreciated “Sexy Beast.” The film is long and setup, and surprisingly limp in payoff. Which is especially a pity, seeing as the cast is stellar and the performances so strong.
Ray Winstone plays Colin, a thicknecked, greasy-haired, suspenders-wearing wonk whose wife (Joanne Whalley, looking foxy) leaves him for an unnamed younger man (Melvil Poupaud). Colin once had connections to the world of organized crime, and for these tough guys a wounded ego and cuckoldry is tantamount to murder. He, kind of hurt and kind of irresolute, rallies some of his buddies to kidnap the offending prettyboy what made off with his wife, and perhaps torment and kill him for the offense.
The boys are a wonder to behold and a delight to watch. There is Meredith (a velvet-voiced Ian McShane), all smarm and dandy smiles, who manages to be a charming homosexual in a world of made men. There is the spitting and frothing Old Man Peanut (an irrepressibly excellent John Hurt) who can’t seem to think too far past the next insult. There is the pragmatic Mal (Stephen Dillane) who seems eager for action, but knows better than to make suggestions. And there is the slightly put-upon Archie (Tom Wilkinson) who is just as pragmatic, but is not shy about making suggestions.
The dialogue and banter in this film are first rate, and it’s hard not to enjoy the delirious gangster poetry that the screenplay occasionally achieves. Sadly, the film is structured like a particularly awkward one-act play, extended into two. That it all takes place largely in one room (with occasional irrelevant flashbacks to other places) doesn’t help matters. The first act is all the boys in said room, berating the hooded loverboy, and trying to work Colin into a frenzy of violence. The second act is Colin by himself with the unhooded loverboy, trying to work himself into a frenzy of violence. Will he commit the act of violence? Perhaps. Perhaps not. We spend too much time oscillating.
The flashbacks are fun. Meredith’s story of how he won a great deal of money that evening is a welcome aside, even if it doesn’t contribute to the plot. Peanut’s story of Samson and Delilah (complete with clips from the 1949 Cecil B. DeMille movie) is the most sublime, as it seems to cut closest to the heart of the film.
I think I can recommend this film, despite its structural flaws. It may not leave one wholly satisfied, but the actors easily make up for it. It’s rare to see so many good actors in one place, so this may serve as a treat.