Polished British gangster flick hits with surprising emotional depth

David G. Hughes on Philip Barantini’s ‘Villain’ (2020)

“I don’t worry about typecast, only not cast,” I’ve heard British hardman Craig Fairbrass say in an interview, a self-deprecating joke from an actor who has more dramatic chops than his direct-to-video niche might let on. But it’s the sort of humble blue-collar remark (Fairbrass is the son of a docker and machinist and worked as a labourer between early acting gigs) that endears you to him as a screen presence — a Man of the People, a practical professional, who gives the fans what they want without any hangups.

In one of the opening scenes of his latest picture Villain, Fairbrass channels that charisma to introduce the immediately likeable character of Eddie Franks, an avuncular and compassionate inmate on his way out of Her Majesty’s Prison. He’s congenial with the guards and stops to talk in loco parentis to a younger inmate about keeping out and flying straight. He’s no villain at all, really. Or, at least, not any longer. One gets the feeling the film’s title functions ironically in reference to Fairbrass reputation as a cockney bruiser, but it also seems to be stealing it from the similarly themed 1971 Richard Burton movie of the same name.

The set up is straight out of Carlito’s Way (1993): a reformed criminal coming out and looking to go straight but getting inadvertently dragged back into “the life”. It doesn’t help that the newly straight-and-narrow Eddie has to deal with the residual fuck-ups of his nebbish addict brother, Sean (George Russo, a co-writer on the film) who’s gotten into hot bother with the local “bully boys”, fronted by Roy (Robert Glenister in delectable form as the actual villain). Coming home to do-up his local boozer (the East End equivalent of the nightclub in Carlito’s Way) with a lick of paint and a promise to get the family back on their feet, it’s not surprising that, in a world where doing right isn’t the easy option, Eddie’s optimistic ambitions don’t go according to plan.

The set-up for Villain is about as enticing as the shoddy marketing material, but there’s plenty worthy going on in this small British production shot on the streets of London. Beneath the badly photoshopped images of Fairbass and a gun is a highly effective and modulated performance of male fragility, impossible to imagine coming from other stalwarts of the genre like, say, Vinnie Jones. He’s out to rectify things for himself and for his family, including an estranged daughter (Izuka Hoyle) living with an abusive boyfriend. She’s mixed-race, which isn’t an inconsiderable gesture of contemporaneity for a sub-genre in limerance towards a somewhat anachronistic vision of London.

So its a film about today and social unease in the realist British tradition. But that’s not to say the effectiveness of Villain comes from being “worthier” than its station or “high brow” by way of miserablist aesthetics. No, it keeps its guiltless, blood-letting genre credibility solidly intact, only it knows the pathos inherent to its mode and uses it to do what many other respectable “social awareness” films out of Albion fail to do: explore the boundaries of agency, and not lecture, diagnose, or intellectualise. Its prerogative is to feel.

And when the feeling comes it hits hard — surprisingly so. The tragedy of entrapment by personal history, involuntary milieu, or family resonates with credibility as if experienced first-hand by the writers. This is communicated in large part due to Fairbass’ naturalistic style, who can deliver a line like “I love you, brother” with absolute conviction and without a modicum of macho self-consciousness. But the director, a Liverpudlian by the name of Philip Barantini who directed two shorts before this, has an evident understanding of subtle emotionalism without ever dipping into the maudlin or cheap. He knows when to linger and when to withdraw, when to go for brooding wistfulness or visceral shock. His handling of pub brawl graphic violence is effective, but it’s a violence of consequence, not bravado.

His film looks great, too. Cinematography by Matthew Lewis toes the line between naturalistic street verité and stylised, well-lit tableau. There are very few establishing shots to ever map a solid sense of city-space, mostly falling under close-quarters oppressiveness, with iconic locations made passing reflections in a car windshield. It’s a restraint that works wonders for its theme of urban imprisonment. The soundtrack by Aaron May and David Ridley lifts a large load too, submerging you into its world through ambient and muffled soundscapes as if recorded underwater. All of which is to say: the film displays a highly competent arrangement of intended mood.

Villain is a film of quietly heroic craft, strung together by a symbiotic team of filmmakers who believe in its material. It’s a motion picture of folk-art integrity and conviction of sensibility, done by a band of outsiders with something to prove — a debutant out to make a mark and a leading-man showing that, sure, he can crack a skull, but he can break a heart too.

Villain is available in the UK now and on-demand in the US 22nd May.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.