Peter Mullan stars in "Tyrannosaur." (Strand Releasing )
"Tyrannosaur" is a punishing story of two broken lives and a searing feature writing/directing debut from British actor Paddy Considine. It is the kind of film that leaves you limp, exhausted and feeling battered by the end. But its wrenching performances make the beating worth weathering.
In a gritty corner of Leeds, Joseph (Peter Mullan) and Hannah (Olivia Colman) meet by chance in a neighborhood as worn down as they are. He's been brought to his knees by drink, while God is what brings Hannah to hers. It's a hopeful moment, so cling to it, for hope has as tough a time surviving this film as anything else.
The idea for the film grew out of an experimental short, Considine's 2007's "Dog Altogether." Essentially the director wondered if he could open with Joseph caught in an unforgivable act and have audiences embrace him by closing time. It is where he starts "Tyrannosaur."
Joseph has had a bad night in a bar. Still seething as he stumbles out the door, he turns all that rage on his dog, with kicks so vicious that it is nearly impossible not to look away. I don't know which is more shocking, the horrific nature of that scene or that it comes from Considine. His roles have had their share of darkness — the frustrated immigrant father in Jim Sheridan's "In America," a downtrodden Depression-era bloke in "Cinderella Man" — but never so black as this.
The filmmaker is pulling no punches here. The story picks back up with another night, another brawl. This one leaves Joseph in a heap outside a charity thrift shop where Hannah finds him the next morning, along with the garbage bags stuffed with old clothes she'll sort and resell. While the short stayed tightly focused on Joseph, the feature has grown to make room for the wonderful surprise of Colman, normally cast in comedic roles.
It is fitting that so much of "Tyrannosaur" is set in a place that traffics in discarded things, since the film is ultimately about whether wasted lives can be reclaimed. The store, which Hannah runs, is usually deserted. There is a framed print of Jesus that watches over a cash register that rarely rings. Though Joseph looks like he could attack at any moment, she reaches out to him anyway.
Over the coming days, the shop becomes the one place Joseph feels safe. When Hannah shows up one morning with a black eye, he begins to see the place is her refuge too, that her seemingly easy life — complete with the nice husband and nice house — is not at all what he thought.
Even as things get better, they get worse with these two lost souls driven by fear and need, clinging to each other and turning away. And this is where "Tyrannosaur" begins to emerge as a love story too, though one complicated by Hannah's abusive and possessive husband (Eddie Marsan).
The film hits a fair number of rough patches of its own — case in point is the neighborhood pit bull and its snarling owner, a flash point for Joseph that never really pans out as it should. That is when the performances step up in unforgettable ways. The Scottish-born Mullan is one of those consistent U.K. character actors whose portfolio is stuffed with good work, including when he steps behind the camera as he did writing and directing 2002's "The Magdalene Sisters."
In his acclaimed performance in '98's "My Name Is Joe," he made a recovering alcoholic memorable. But as Joseph, Mullan is scorching — a hard man giving into demons, struggling to push past them. It has rightly put his name in the awards race.
Colman should be there as well. The actress exposes Hannah's anguish in glances, breaking your heart as she peers out from behind the bruises — denying them as she hides behind them. She is so reflective of those who suffer domestic abuse in the way she keeps her pain contained, until she can't, delivering a performance so finely wrought it stays with you.
The almost documentary style Considine adopts only serves to deepen the tragedies here. Years ago, the filmmaker studied photography, and that has influenced the look of the film, its color palette so muted that when Hannah puts out a vase of flowers to brighten up Joseph's dreary house, they seem out of place long before you realize just how wrong for the moment they truly are.
Director of photography Erik Alexander Wilson, who shot the sublime coming of age story "Submarine," makes it feel as if he's only working in natural light. Outside there's an unforgiving glare, inside a kind of darkness that is always closing in.
There are other side stories, but the specifics ultimately fall away in the face of what Mullan does with Joseph and Colman with Hannah. Their performances are so raw, so visceral, you feel the blows, wince at the bruises, cry at their pain. Forgiveness for them — or the filmmaker — is left in your hands.