Sexy Beast takes its aim at the ‘tyranny of realism’

An analysis to accompany SO1EO3 by Dr Katerina Flint-Nicol

As I discussed in the podcast, the British gangster film has developed its own relationship with realism, and I refer to realism here in its broadest sense, from representation to narrative origins, and casting choices. While Sexy Beast pivots on subverting genre expectations with Ben Kingsley’s fear-shredding performance as a London gangster and Ray Winstone’s in-vogue star persona, the film reaches beyond the associative qualities of realism – grittiness, naturalism, dreariness – embracing an injection of surrealism, an unusual direction for a British gangster film. While such a filmic strategy does not impact a feel of authenticity in the film, it does imagine characterisation in a broader scope than mere flat-packed stereotypes, whilst developing and elevating the form of the genre. Realism, while still present, becomes then a critical compass point from which to depart from.

Much of this should be attributed to the writing team of Louis Mellis and David Scinto, and director, Jonathan Glazer. Sexy Beast was Glazer’s debut feature film, having spent the preceding decade directing music videos for high-profile artists such as Radiohead, Blur, Nick Cave and Massive Attack. Glazer brings an arresting visual style (sharpened by the form of music video) to the film and it isn’t too implausible to position Glazer with two other British directors noted for their visual flair, Ridley Scott and Alan Parker, both of whom also began their careers honing their craft working on short-forms, albeit commercials. Wouldn’t it be something not to confine British directors in discussions and categorisations by canon, tradition, or genre, but illuminate their filmmaking by what they share as visual storytellers? Glazer’s crafting of the visual in Sexy Beast finds synergy with Mellis’ and Scinto’s language-rich script informed by an ear for the vernacular. But Scinto and Mellis’ work (the duo also wrote Gangster No 1, and 44 Inch Chest, completing a triptych of gangster films) has been described as challenging British cinema to be more cinematic.  

Cinematic. Hhmm.  What has ‘cinematic’ come to now mean? Its use now brings to my mind that Morrisey lyric, “heavy words are so lightly thrown” (fortunately, not much else takes me back to that old house these days) in that the word’s use oscillates wildly between praise and disparagement, omitting clarification. Are we to think British cinema to be too natural? Too gritty? Too…dreary? Answers on a postcard. But for Sexy Beast, its ‘cinematic’ tag can be found in sequences of an aesthetic of interiority that punctuate the narrative. A presentation of an interior is unusual for a British gangster film as class identity and gender is so aligned with the physical – both body and actions, violence and narrative progression, there is always an association with movement.

But in Sexy Beast, Glazer halts the action and temporality to unveil visually Gal’s anxiety and his love for Deedee. There is a beautiful montage sequence in the first third of the film where Gal, Deedee, Aitch and Jackie are enjoying an evening at the villa. There’s no diegetic sound, but rather Glazer overlays exterior music, the track Lujon by Henry Mancini lifted from the 1959 TV series, Mr Lucky about a professional gambler, an inclusion that requires reading as a comment on Gal’s feelings towards Deedee. The stringed instrumental swirls up and down in time with the flames rising from the BBQ. And we see Gal and Aitch play-fighting, Deedee dancing, the editing and speed presents the sequence as a highly stylised home-movie-shot aesthetic. We are meant to be watching a gangster film, and yet this sequence is an enactment of homely happiness and romantic love. The tone is one of fun, camaraderie, and love. And within this montage, we hear Gal’s thoughts – Gal’s monologues being a persistent trope in the film. In a quick series of shots, Gal’s head is framed looking beyond the camera and we hear his voice declare “it’s hot. It’s damn hot”. And before we can finish our interpretation he’s referring to the temperature, the action cuts to Deedee dancing erotically, but in a homespun style, and not towards the camera – she isn’t objectified, which is crucial to understanding her relationship with Gal. But the construction of shots instructs the audience that Gal is thinking of Deedee. The action cuts back to Gal smoking a cigar. He blows a smoke ring which grows to fill out the frame and transform into the shape of a love heart. And then we see Gal and Deedee horizontally floating in the frame, embracing.

This is one example of how Glazer halts the linear narrative of the film replacing it with an interior space. Not only is it an aesthetic choice disrupting the form of the gangster film, but also a formal strategy in the articulation of masculine identity of Gal. If you are not aligning or centering a working-class identity with physical form, actions, and violence, then you must find an alternative strategy to articulate that particular identity. And what these dream and interior sequences do is to construct Gal’s identity, masculinity foremostly, within his relationship to Deedee, and more broadly with the bonds he has with Aitch and Jackie. It is a different, and unusual choice of a surreal cinematic language for the animation of a working-class masculinity. But it is a clear move away from the usual construction of this classed, masculine identity and sexuality heavily associated with the gangster film, and one governed and dictated by the hierarchy of homosocial bonds within a criminal fraternity; often bonds that are founded upon a loyalty that is enacted and extracted through violence and fear.

One last thing I wish to say on the inflections of art-house stylization in the film and the relationship to filmic depictions of class is in how it raises questions, or challenges the conception that working-class identities have to be animated within the remit of realism. So often a working-class experience within the popular cultural imagination has become synonymous with ‘realistic’, ‘authentic’, ‘gritty’, ‘real-life’, which is on the one hand, necessary to ensure the continued presence of identity, not necessarily agency, within popular cultural form. And I say this in the knowledge that realism is a mediated construct and ideologically infused. But realism in all its widest renderings, limits, or stifles narratives, what experiences and identities are told on film and sits within what Paul Gilroy describes as the ‘poverty of imagination’ when it comes to working-class identity onscreen. When it is stated that British cinema suffers from the ‘tyranny of realism’, it’s not just how the social realist drama dominates the narrative of British cinema history and the hierarchal valuation of film form within that discourse, and also to a certain degree funding for film projects, and impacts representation and then characterisation.

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