Blue-collar Brits looking for their score
About midway through Wasteland, a British heist drama from first time writer-director Rowan Athale, four friends are seriously considering a robbery. It’s the make or break moment to go all in on a thieving that will net them an ownership at a coffee shop in Amsterdam. “It’s about the people, not the place,” protests one chap to two others nervous about leaving their motherland and lifetime domesticity once they commit the crime. On the border about to cross into adulthood, the four’s internal indecisiveness is the deepest but most caring part of this elaborate caper.
Filmed in a gritty fogged lens and promoting the ostensibly eternal grayness of northern England, Wasteland is as much about a highly coordinated heist as it is about the trials of twenty-somethings in the dark alleys of life. As I’ve mentioned briefly in past writing, British film, especially in the last decade, has undergone a noticeable split in the depictions of its country. For every King’s Speech or soon-to-be Diana, films littered with nostalgia and iconic re-interpretations of its monarchal leaders and early 20th century hierarchical structures, you find a This is England or The Full Monty. The latter nestle themselves into the blue-collar duties of their protagonists, the streets and nightlife of crime-ridden towns, and often the bonded relationships between diverse groups of drop outs, drug users, and drinkers, striving to get their break.
Athale doesn’t fully find his groove within the thickly dense arena of British caper films like the relatively recent Layer Cake does, nor does he tap too deep into the existential questionings of his lively crew. But, this is still a clever first feature, even if the thick Yorkshire accents are at time incomprehensible. It’s at once occasionally frustrating deciphering the odd phrases but also an affectionate attribute of its authenticity and slice of this dreary working class dialect.
It opens with Harvey (Luke Treadaway), still fresh out of serving a year in prison, bruised and beaten, testifying to a policeman (Timothy Spall) the ample details of the past several weeks leading up to his arrest for drug possession. His flashbacks with intermittent narration chronicle the entire build-up of his plan to rob the local nightclub with mates Charlie (Gerard Kearns), Dodd (Matthew Lewis of Harry Potter fame), and Dempsey (Iwan Rheon). Getting their approval to help in the low scale robbery is the first hurdle, as is re-kindling love with his former girlfriend Nicola (Vanessa Kirby). She nicely becomes more than just a throwaway vice for the money hungry group leader.
The second hurdle is evading the local drug kingpin Steven Roper (Neil Maskell), known for his brutal and sadistic forms of torture to clientele. In the small urban area, his hubris inflates linearly with his reputation. If Athale hadn’t shown us some of his methods, the mythology of his violent tendencies still would have sufficed. The partial perspective meanwhile slowly invites a critical eye towards Harvey and his sporadic impulse to pursue a potential life-changing theft and his master plan to execute it. Does he know what he’s doing? Is this in best interest for him or for his friends?
It’s here Wasteland succeeds best, using the anxieties of soon-to-be amateur criminals as a platform for discovering the lengths of their friendship. A nifty, but unoriginal plot device, similar to Ocean’s 11, yet at a much simpler level, keeps the film engaging as it reaches its anticipated climax.
The pastures aren’t so green and the homes not so dainty. These boys embody their surroundings of bricks and concrete in body and mind. It’s what drives them each day and equally, ironically motivates them to get away.
Now playing in select theaters and available on VOD