44 Inch Chest is a British gangster film from the writers of the brilliant 2000 gangster flick Sexy Beast (see that movie if you haven’t, it’s great), and it also shares a few actors in lead Ray Winstone and co-star Ian McShane. But while Sexy Beast was a slick, stylish gangster flick with a riveting performance from Ben Kingsley as a ridiculously stubborn thug who lent the film a real sense of menace and tension, 44 Inch Chest is more of a meditation on love, heartbreak and the masculine ego. With gangsters.
The story follows Colin Diamond (Winstone), a middle-aged tough guy from the British underworld who finds out his beloved wife (Joanne Whalley) has cheated on him with a French waiter half his age. Utterly devastated, his shady pals Meredith (McShane), Old Man Peanut (John Hurt), Archie (Tom Wilkinson) and Mal (Stephen Dillane) abduct the young lothario from the restaurant where he works to set up an impromptu trial – with him tied to a chair – so their heartbroken friend can feel better about himself.
While director Malcolm Venville doesn’t have the visual flair of Sexy Beast director Jonathan Glazer (that film is referenced all over the box art and extras on this movie, so they’re very much inviting that comparison), 44 Inch Chest is a really great-looking movie. Venville has an excellent eye, and while his film isn’t as in-your-face with style and use of crazy colors as Sexy Beast, his film is filled with wonderfully composed shots, and the pacing is top notch.
The best thing about 44 Inch Chest is the actors. Everyone here is doing stellar work, particularly McShane as the supercool gay gangster Meredith. While almost every scene he has references his homosexuality, McShane resists the temptation to play him as a cartoonish drag queen type, rather giving him an incredible charisma fused with a menace that lurks just beneath the surface. And the delight he takes in riling up Hurt’s decidedly homophobic Peanut is a ceaselessly entertaining running gag.
Hurt, one of my favorite British character actors, gets a wonderfully meaty role to sink his bizarre false teeth into as the cranky Old Man Peanut. Wilkinson makes Archie the most easily likeable character in the film – we’re introduced to him while he’s enjoying a nice, quiet evening with his mom – and his positive disposition makes him the natural mediator in the group. And Stephen Dillane, the only actor in the ensemble I wasn’t familiar with going in, ended up making the smart-assed Mal one of my favorite characters in the movie.
But is 44 Inch Chest is anyone’s show, it’s Winstone’s. The arc he gets to display as Colin – heartbroken man, terrifying bully, repentant husband – takes real chops, and he’s stellar. The way the film is structured, we get flashbacks as the film goes on of what happened before the little kangaroo court began, and the insights they provide end up shading the character of Colin. Winstone really is playing a man with a broken heart, and for much of the movie it’s the other characters who get to seem threatening, so he ends up spending the first act seeming like just a pathetic, blubbering sadsack. But once the plot starts to thicken as the film unfolds, we get glimpses of Colin as the terrifying, violent thug his friends know him to be.
Aside from the acting, it was the intimate, theater-like vibe of 44 Inch Chest that impressed me the most. Aforementioned flashbacks aside, the bulk of the film is set in a small room in a run-down tenement with the main characters delivering speeches to each other, and it really felt like a play a lot of the time (and I mean that as a high compliment). And it means every actor in the film gets at least one big, juicy monologue to play with. McShane has at least two totally awesome speeches, but the real centerpiece is Winstone’s lengthy speech to Loverboy, delivered mostly to the camera in a tight close-up, about the true nature of love, and how it takes hard work. It’s incredibly well done, and surprisingly heartfelt and touching. I wasn’t expecting this level of emotional engagement from a gangster/revenge movie, but it knocked me on my ass. There’s a rhythm to Louis Mellis’ and David Scinto’s dialogue – which is also often hilarious – that approaches masters like Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet. 44 Inch Chest is simply a piece of great writing, and much of the movie’s appeal is watching a pack of great actors go to town with the material.
As much as 44 Inch Chest isn’t as flashy and slick on its surface as Sexy Beast, Venville adds a bunch of wonderfully subtle touches, like the French waiter only being referred to as Loverboy, or the fact that he doesn’t even have a line in the film (he literally just spends the movie sitting there looking scared, but his role is still fairly significant), or the fact that Colin and his friends are never officially identified as gangsters, and we never get an explanation as to exactly what it is these men do. It’s little touches like that that make 44 Inch Chest feel like it takes place in its own little reality; there’s a history between these characters that’s almost never directly referenced, but is always present.
As much as 44 Inch Chest is about love and heartbreak, it’s also about love between men. The characters in the film have an unbreakable bond that goes beyond business, and as sinister and violent as the goings-on can be (there is a bloodied man tied to a chair in the middle of the room that they all keep threatening to murder, after all), it’s always clear that Colin’s friends are doing this for him out of a completely genuine sense of loyalty and love. They hate Loverboy as much as he does – maybe even more – because of what he’s done to their friend, and it’s clearly painful for them to see their comrade reduced to such a pathetic state.
The pacing in 44 Inch Chest is a bit odd, and it’s not really a traditional gangster movie, which may put off some viewers. There isn’t a lot of violence or “action” for a movie ostensibly about gangsters. It’s similar to Reservoir Dogs in the way it’s sort of set after a lot of the action that drives the plot, and mostly follows the characters as they react to what happened earlier, which is eventually made clear to the audience in pieces over the movie’s running time. It’s a slow-burn movie that lacks a big payoff – I suspect some viewers will really dislike the ending, which is almost anti-climactic – but the ending was actually one of the aspects of the movie I liked the most. It felt like it fit in perfectly with the rest of the movie.
I went into 44 Inch Chest expecting a hard-edged British gangster film, and while it certainly has those elements, it ended up being a strangely insightful story of love, betrayal and the male ego. It’s not as superficially “cool” as a lot of other movies about underworld types, but it’s an excellent film nonetheless, and will appeal to mature, intelligent fans of the genre. Highly recommended.