Set in Stratford’s badlands, Dexter Fletcher’s debut feature Wild Bill has Olympian dreams of turning a wayward father into a family hero. So very London 2012.
Gangs Of Brixton by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Dexter Fletcher’s debut feature couldn’t be more British. Like a strange compendium of Richard Curtis and Guy Ritchie, Wild Bill begins with a coming together of different characters, ducking and diving around an estate in Stratford, East London. It’s jaunty, like English comedies should be. And with an outstanding performance from former Press Gang co-star Charlie Creed-Miles, as the instantly likeable but put-upon dad Bill Haywood returning home from an eight-year stint in Parkhurst Prison, Wild Bill is a curious mix of comedy and heartstring-tugging melodrama. It can hardly be called gritty realism with its caricature gangsters and a script with more carefully constructed jeopardy than a Hollywood script quack’s wet dream, but it’s an enjoyable rough and tumble that can raise both a laugh and a tear.
Like his most famous film Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, Dexter Fletcher’s Wild Bill has an eclectic soundtrack of jazz, reggae and funk. Its score not so much a reflection or a commentary on the action as a synthetic gloss enveloping its scenes with a polished sheen. And with a host of former co-stars regularly cast as gangsters and cockneys, such as Jason Flemyng, Jaime Winstone and Sean Pertwee reinvented as social workers and policemen, Fletcher seems to be shaking the cosy comedy gangster world up. It’s a subversion that exists in his story too. An ex-con released from Her Majesty’s pleasure and enticed back into the criminal underworld he left behind – so far so familiar. But when the film circles in on Bill’s rediscovery of his two sons, grim-faced Dean and regular truant Jimmy, this is a different kind of family story.
Kids are the millstone around his neck that puts Bill back on the straight and narrow, turning the feckless reprobate into a father with a job and going straight for real. And in order to safeguard his family from the clutches of Children’s Services, after being abandoned by their mother for a nine-month holiday in Benidorm, he gives up on his own dreams of a new life on an oil rig in Scotland to look after them. As Wild Bill opens, Fletcher focuses on the eldest hard-as-nails boy Dean, superbly played by Will Poulter with a dour vigour worthy of an EastEnder, as he struggles to keep food on the table, Jimmy in school and himself in work on time. The film is sometimes seen through Dean’s eyes, fearfully watching his father holler through letterboxes, and with a lingering yellow-hued glow of empathy. He’s the recalcitrant one, only slowly relenting on his stubborn refusal to keep his dad out of his good books; only when he’s humiliated himself with a job holding a ‘Discount Shoes’ sign does Dean grant him a slightly thawed “See you at home.”
The film though really belongs to Bill, celebrating his transition from Wild Bill to Mild Bill. Released from prison on the Isle of Wight, he sails back to the mainland with a fearful determination not to return to prison, not expecting to find a family waiting for him, a family who hate him for leaving them. But with a job bringing money in and putting home-cooked food on the table, he can clean up his act as well as the flat; his new-found responsibilities symbolised in a filthy toilet nemesis. He readily takes responsiblity for his sons’ misdemeanours, getting Jimmy off the hook for vandalising the school’s music room with a gangland little white lie, and taking up his son’s drug-dumped debt with local dealer Terry and kingpin Glen. This new-found paternity might be laid on a bit thick, but there’s a moving moment all the same of Bill and his new family eating Chinese together, the sound dipped in cinematic homage to their idealised togetherness. But the scene of Charlie Creed-Miles descending in a lift to meet his son’s pusher, his face contorted by seething fearfulness, is a marvel.
Wild Bill has a great script, which really gets going with its family disputes; the “old bike” Will gives Dean as a birthday present, and its jovial badlands of scratch-card dreams and cartoon violence, manor-mouthed toddlers and against-type gangsters – “Don’t talk black to me!” But there are moments of real pathos too, in the cuppa Dean buys his dad, or his heartbreaking one-liner “I didn’t run away from home, home ran away from me.” Comedy and tragedy battle like Wild Bill‘s puny feckless gangsters. But like the glimpses of Stratford’s regeneration, with Olympic stadia springing up and with Dean narrowly keeping down a job on the building site, there is hope on the horizon. The has-been generation returns to recoup the sins of the past and the present, keeping today’s young people on the straight and narrow path. A cautionary tale for the Olympic era, Wild Bill might not be a medal-winner, but certainly it’s got a heart of gold.
Wild Bill is released on 23rd March 2012 in the UK