For whatever reason, directorial debuts by British character actors tend to lean towards the gritty kitchen-sink drama; Tim Roth, Gary Oldman and, more recently, Paddy Considine have all broken their filmmaking cherry with uncompromisingly tough, bleak subject matter. Considering that it involves abandonment, council estates and the risk of being taken into care, one might be forgiven for expecting the same from Dexter Fletcher's first film, "Wild Bill." But then, Fletcher's best known for being one of the central quartet, alongside Jason Statham, Jason Flemyng and Nick Moran, in Guy Ritchie's debut "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," and for appearing frequently in Matthew Vaughn's pictures, so could Fletcher have turned out some kind of guns and geezers movie instead?
But of course, Fletcher has had a long diverse career, kicking off with Alan Parker's "Bugsy Malone" and taking in work with Derek Jarman, Mike Leigh and Michael Winterbottom, and happily "Wild Bill" falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, a surprisingly charming film that nevertheless feels grounded and authentic, with a brace of excellent performances, and it suggests that Fletcher is a more humane filmmaker than either Ritchie or Vaughn.
'Wild' Bill Hayward (Charlie Creed-Miles), a former hard man and drug addict, has just gotten out of prison, and is determined to stay on the straight and narrow. In his absence, however, his ex-wife has left, abandoning their kids, Dean (Will Poulter) and Jimmy (Sammy Williams, the scene stealing Probs from "Attack the Block") to their own devices. Dean has had to leave school, working on a construction site for the 2012 Olympics, while Jimmy is going off the rails, falling under the influence of local drug dealer Terry (Leo Gregory). Bill wants to get out of town, to work on an oil rig in Scotland, but Dean blackmails him into staying, so that the kids aren't taken into care, and it soon puts the reluctant father on a collision course with Terry and his business-minded boss Glen (Andy Serkis).
It's not wildly inventive stuff, exactly, a plot that's pretty familiar, between one thing and another, but it feels fresh in Fletcher's hands. It's partly because it's got a real feel for London, a look at East London that feels totally of its time; the Olympics cast a long shadow over the area, and it's particularly appropriate that it premiered at a BFI London Film Festival that's essentially a building site, part of the desperate city-wide scramble to give the city a lick of paint before next summer.
But from the off, there's also a playful, Western-like tone to proceedings, as you might expect from the title; Christian Henson ("Black Death," "The Devil's Double" contributes a fine, Morricone-lite score to proceedings, aided by musical contributions including The Clash. It's dealing with heavy subject matter, but Fletcher maintains a lightness of touch that stops it from sinking under its own weight; in some ways, it's strangely reminiscent of the Children's Film Foundation pictures of the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
Most importantly, Fletcher knows how to get the right actors. A spate of bigger names, presumably mates of the director, cameo, including Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng, Jaime Winstone, "Kill List" star Neil Maskell, and Serkis, who has enormous fun with a couple of scenes as a gang boss ("Misfits" star Iwan Rheon is the exception, sadly -- he's embarassingly unconvincing as a would-be menacing rude boy). But it's the lesser-known names who really make it sing.
Creed-Miles is a familiar face going back twenty-five years (including a stint alongside Fletcher in Steven Moffat's classic kids TV series "Press Gang," and a major role in Oldman's "Nil By Mouth"), but he's never had a lead of this size, and acquits himself beautifully. Somewhat nerdy and slight in apperance, he's counter-intuitive casting in the part of a thug fighting his violent tendencies, but all the more interesting for it, and convinces firmly once Wild Bill goes off the handle.
And the kids are just as good -- it's no surprise to see the hand of casting queen Nina Gold, who found extraordinary child actors for "Game of Thrones" and "Never Let Me Go," among many others, on the credits. Will Poulter has held a great deal of promise after turns in "Son of Rambow" and "Voyage of the Dawn Treader," but he shines in his first teen role; prickly but charming, at once a young man with real weight on his shoulders, and a vulnerable kid, somewhat adrift. Williams, meanwhile is a delight, getting most of the movie's laughs, but becoming a source of real concern for the audience. There are also really strong performances from Liz White and Sammy Williams as the women in Bill and Dean's lives, both actresses giving dimension to whore-with-a-heart-of-gold and feisty-teen-mum roles that are a little underwritten.
Indeed, it's the script that proves the big stumbling block here; written by Fletcher and Danny King, it never quite satisfyingly draws the threads together, leaving Dean's storyline mostly adrift from the thriller plotting, and never quite upping the stakes far enough (one of the reasons it feels like a family film in places). But Fletcher has a strong directorial hand, giving the film flair and zip without distracting from the story he's telling. It's very much a first film, but one that promises a lot more to come from the actor when he next steps behind the camera. [B]