“I can’t live, if living is without you,” swoons Nilsson’s soaring anthem as diamond geezer Colin Diamond (Ray Winstone) lies prostrate on the floor, a broken man amid the wreckage of his broken marriage.
Colin’s missus (Joanne Whalley) has been doing the dirty on him with a French waiter (Melvill Poupaud), see, and though the presence of Sexy Beast writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto suggests some traditional East End ultra-violence is next on the menu, what actually emerges is an off-kilter examination of old-fashioned masculinity in the midst of a railing, blubbering crisis.
Shadowboxing his demons in a shabby London safehouse while his mates – ageing Lock Stockers gone to seed – goad him towards murdering his rival, Diamond rages at his impotence like a Shakespearian antihero. Howling in anguish one minute, pissing his pants the next, it’s a fearsome, both-barrels performance from Winstone.
Abetted by Hurt channelling Old Man Steptoe, McShane inhabiting a gay lounge lizard, and the rest of Diamond’s gang spitting largely unprintable monologues, the film flits from flashback to feverish fantasy, kitchen-sink to psychodrama, all the while barely leaving that one safehouse set.
Though the cast are terrific, particularly McShane and Stephen Dillane (who holds his own amid an array of UK acting legends), and the dialogue grubbily poetic/profane, there are issues inherent in the material that Venville’s pedestrian direction fails to address.
For a story that seethes with implied violence, not a lot actually happens and stagnation is, by definition, a tricky state to make compelling. “My bum’s gone to sleep,” whines McShane with some justification as another electrifying but actorly digression fizzles away to nothing. And there’s the rub.
With the performances and dialogue foregrounded and the staging kept close and claustrophobic, 44 Inch Chest never escapes the sense that it’s a wonderful, if not very well adapted, play.
A bit of Much Ado About Nuffink if you like.
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This arthouse gangster oddity could have set the West End alight – particularly with this Best of British cast, all full of the requisite sound and fury – but it struggles manfully on the big screen.