Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) is an adolescent, which means he is as internally tumultuous as Devon’s weather. He and his family have transferred from London to an isolated country house near the sea. His pregnant mother (Tilda Swinton) quietly misses London, but his father (Ray Winstone) and older sister Jessie (Lara Belmont) stay occupied with work and college searches. The family spends their days trudging through rain or cozying up at home. They hardly notice when Tom, already sullen, discovers something that shakes him into near silence.
The War Zone (based on a book by Alexander Stuart) depicts a situation that is theoretically simple and in actuality anything but. Told from the perspective not of a knowing outsider but of innocence as it is being lost, Tim Roth’s directorial debut is uniquely powerful. Its most appalling moments are justified, even crucial.
The camera lingers on small figures surrounded by green and gray and pummeled by the elements. The ocean’s rhythmic violence and the setting’s physical remoteness clearly reflect the family’s emotional trials. The repetitive, sometimes sentimental soundtrack is still effective.
Tom’s impenetrability ultimately works, but Cunliffe’s lack of expressions is off-putting in comparison to Belmont’s harrowing performance as Jessie. Thespians Swinton and Winstone are understated and excellent as the parents. The sparse, mumbled dialogue is naturalistic if occasionally heavy handed (and difficult for Americans to understand).
The film offers no explanations and leaves on an ambiguous note, forcing viewers to identify with its tender protagonists. In spite of its bleak portrayal of youth overwhelmed by confusion, The War Zone has changed lives. Realistic in a way few movies are, its very existence dispels myths, fosters sympathy, and inspires confessions. The film’s flaws do not detract from its rare significance.