Wild Bill review

One can’t say expectations were high for this. Wild Bill is an East End drama about a drug dealer just out on parole, written and directed by actor Dexter Fletcher with a cast list that looks like he has gone through his rolodex and called in favours from all his mates. Let’s face it, East End dramas produced by actors and full of their mates have a poor track record. One only has to think of such films as Love, Honour and Obey featuring Jude Law and mates, or the recent mockney gangsters vs vampires travesty Dead Cert featuring former The Bill and EastEnders actor Billy Murray and mates (ironically including Fletcher). So it is fair to say that I was rather blindsided by Wild Bill.

Bill (Creed-Miles) is a former dealer just released on parole after serving a seven year stretch. Returning to the East End home he left years before, Bill finds his sons Dean (Son of Rambow’s Poulter) and Jimmy (Sammy Williams, recently seen in Attack The Block) living alone, their mother having disappeared to Spain with a boyfriend nine months before. Bill does not intend to stay, he has a job lined up in Scotland, and wants to avoid getting embroiled with the local gangsters he has served his time for. When he lets slip to his parole officer (Olivia Williams, with a 20-years-past-sell-by-date crimped hairstyle) that the boys are alone, she raises the spectre of social services, forcing Bill to stay in the area or see the boys (who are 15 and 11) placed in care.

Of course his presence is soon spotted by the odious local dealers (played by Gregory and Kill List's Maskell) who first want him to work for them again, and then want him to leave town after the big boss (a sinister Serkis) disapproves. Bill is stuck between a rock and a hard place, if he leaves town his children go into the care system, if he stays he risks the wrath of the local dealers. Matters are further complicated by frosty relations with older son Dean. The 15 year old has been trying to take care of his brother alone, having dropped out of school to work semi-legally as a builder’s mate on the nearby Olympic development in Stratford (“shut up and build me a velodrome”). Dean is simmering with anger at his absent parents and unwilling to let Bill back into their lives. Worse, unknown to both Bill and Dean, 11 year old Jimmy has been recruited as a drug runner by the same dealers threatening his father. After Jimmy dumps his school satchel of crack down a drain to avoid being pinched by the police, the dealers force him to work to pay off the debt. Add to this situation, Dean’s budding romance with teenage mum Steph and Will’s relationship with prostitute and gangster’s moll Roxy (White) and matters soon become very, very complicated indeed.

So yeah, the plot synopsis above as about as studded with stock characters and situations as a Marks & Spencer fruit scone is with raisins (for the record that’s a generous portion, not like the ones from Aldi). It’s fair to say that there is not a great deal of originality in the basic set up. But to miss out on Wild Bill because of the apparent overfamiliarity of the material would be to miss out on what is going to be one of the most entertaining British films of this year. A great deal of things elevate the material far above its generic appearance.

Firstly there are the performances, the leads are uniformly excellent. Poulter has been rather overlooked since Son of Rambow. His co-star on that film Bill Milner went on to a number of high-profile film acting gigs, while the more working class Poulter largely went into television (a role in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader being an exception). As Dean he captures a boy on the cusp of manhood, forced by circumstances to grow up far too fast. His romance subplot is genuinely sweet. Sammy Williams was one of the best things in Attack The Bloc and is equally good here, it’s hard not to melt a little at his Puss In Boots-esque big kitten eyes, but the drug scenario he becomes involved in is tough and all too believable. Even the film’s most cliched character, hooker-with-heart Roxy (played by Life On MarsS’ White), comes across as an actual human being. However the film is built around the character of Bill, and Creed-Miles is absolutely brilliant. The character’s arc (to use a loathsome screenwriting manual term) is extremely curvy.  At the beginning of the film he sees his kids not so much as a problem, but just as strangers with whom he shares only DNA in common. The gradual awakening of the Bill’s paternal instincts and his innate goodness as a person is deeply moving. This is a film that at heart is all about fathers and sons and it is guaranteed to bring a great big manly lump to the throat of anyone who has ever been a father or a son. Fletcher is smart enough to throw in a great punch up to make us men feel less wet about sniffling. Look there was something in my eye goddamnit!

On a technical level the film looks great, Fletcher has clearly being paying attention doing his dayjob and his shots are well composed. The film is visually striking without over-stylising its working class milieu. It is well edited, well paced and also has a great collection of songs on the soundtrack, ranging from punk to banging choons to post rock.

The ultimate star of Wild Bill is the screenplay by Fletcher and novelist Danny King. Warm and comic, but always a drama at heart. The dialogue is witty and clever, but never in-your-face flashy in the way most mockney cobblers films are as they slavishly ape Tarantino. The plot framework is basically that of a western, and as such may attract criticism for predictability, but there is nothing wrong with a good story well told. Fletcher and King appear to have great affection for their characters, they may be exemplars of everything British tabloids demonise, teenage mothers, truant children, ex-cons, prostitutes, drunks and drug addicts, but these are real people living real lives with hopes and dreams like all of us.

Wild Bill is a very strong film, and it manages to hit just the right sweet spot being both socially relevant but also entertaining. This elusive mix which has made for domestic box office success in the past with the likes of Billy Elliott, The Full Monty and, at the harsher end of the scale, Trainspotting. I urge you to see it - like last year's Tyrannosaur, it marks a British actor moving on and becoming a really exciting new director.

Wild Bill at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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