The War Zone (1999)

Justin Frost




The War Zone (1999), Dir: Tim Roth, GB, 95 minutes

Cast: Ray Winstone, Tilda Swinton, Lara Belmont, Freddie Cunliffe


Tim Roth’s directorial debut, and sole effort to date, begins with a middle class family relocating from London to Devon. Dad (Winstone) is an antiques dealer and Mum (Swinton) in the final weeks of pregnancy. Teenage daughter Jess (Belmont) appears to take the move in her stride, safe in the knowledge that she will soon leave for college, whilst younger sibling Tom (Cunliffe) seems withdrawn and dejected about the fresh start. Despite a car accident on the way to the hospital the family are relatively unharmed and the new addition reinforces their mutual bond. This unity is shattered one evening when Tom returns home and accidentally glimpses Dad and Jess taking a bath together.

What unfolds is understandably gruelling to watch, a film that sears itself into your memory. Tonally Alexander Stuart’s adaptation of his own 1989 novel has a chamber play level of intensity. A still, combustible air hangs over the bleak, rural backdrop. Bar one unflinching scene The War Zone forgoes gratuity. Roth’s film is a fiercely intelligent depiction of abuse within a family, a minimalist yet multifaceted portrayal.

“You’re sick” says Tom to Jess who replies “Is that what you think? As predictable as that. You just want everything to be nice and sweet but it isn’t”. Initially this family seems like any other, taking a stroll on the beach or Dad telling stories as he cooks a meal. Once Tom confronts Jess with what he has seen, to her instant denial, we revaluate what has gone before. It’s unsettling how this relationship has woven itself undetected into everyday domesticity. Body language and glances instantly take on a different resonance. This is typical of Roth’s deft approach and the naturalistic but complex turns he gets from his actors ensure that nothing is “as predictable as that”.

With Tom now complicit in the lie (unknown to Dad) a three way psychological battle of wills is fought out that rests on shifting sands. Ashamed and wracked with guilt Jess tries to rubbish Tom’s accusations. The authority that Dad exerts over her is all she has ever known. At one point she phones him to meet up such is the perfunctory nature of their relationship.

Through being sexualised at such a young age her body becomes her defence and a means of what limited control she has. We see this when she leaves the local pub with Nick (Colin Farrell) provoking Dad’s anger as both parent and lover and again with her open nudity towards Tom who is in the early years of adolescence. Tom’s journey itself could be interpreted as a twisted rites of passage story. During a trip to London Jess attempts to buy his silence and asks Carol (Aisling O’Sullivan) to sleep with Tom in an awkward, failed seduction. Afterwards we see Jess alone and tearful in the hotel room aware of the parallels with her own plight.

The performances coaxed by Roth from Belmont and Cunliffe, both in their film debuts, are remarkable. Swinton’s role is muted here, her Mum an unknowing bystander to what unravels around her. One minor false note could be suggested with Winstone’s casting. Perhaps he carries too much on screen baggage from previous roles in films such as Nil by Mouth (1997) to truly convince as a middle class father.

Gary Oldman’s directorial debut is an interesting case in point. Like Roth, this is his lone outing behind the camera. Alan Clarke’s considerable influence is apparent in each. Both appeared in Clarke films, an early break for Roth in skinhead drama Made in Britain (1982) and OIdman in football hooligan drama The Firm (1989). As a sidenote Winstone rose to prominence in the controversial Borstal prison film Scum (1977) The state of the nation we inhabit today demands that Clarke’s brand of combative, issue driven cinema is needed now more than ever.


Justin Frost is a Solent University Film Studies graduate. Topics of interest in this field include the 1960’s British New Wave and the films of Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Mike Leigh. He lives in Devon and when not witnessing the decline of the nation first hand as a Civil Servant enjoys nothing better than fine conversation on culture, politics and football at his local over a pint. Other material can be found at his blog Reverse Zoom. He really should write more often.



Charles Sharpe writes:

from 2001 to 2006 I showed this film to students as part of the Exeter University/Caldecott College Postgraduate course in Child Development and Therapeutic Child Care which I led at Eagle House.  The film is as Justin implies a harrowing, yet so insightful about the dynamics of an isolated family and how abuse in such a family can  become an unspoken yet intrinsic part of its culture.

i showed the film because the students worked in residential settings where working with abused children and their horrific experiences seemed to have become general currency of their work  and in danger of somehow becoming unremarkable. I thought this film would  address this issue but I was relieved to find that though the students found the film difficult all thought that it put them in emotional touch with the trauma of sexual abuse. I worried that the harrowing nature of some of the scenes in the film might be seen as gratuitous if not pornographic but I am grateful to you Justin for seeing the film as I originally saw it as an honest if disturbing portrayal of a particular kind of family.


To comment on this article or to contact the author email

Return to Journal Index