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The Monster Down the Lane

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 3, 2000


    'A Room for Romeo Brass' Andrew Shim and Ben Marshall are mates who make mischief in "A Room for Romeo Brass." (Dean Rogers/USA Films)
For the Brits, "A Room for Romeo Brass" probably plays as kitchen sink drama, full of lower-middle-class domestic anguish and rude humor, a few blowhard shouting matches and the F-word deployed as all seven parts of speech. To an American, however, it seems as exotic as some Grimm Brothers fairy tale, a bitter, black and oddly beautiful story set in a dreamland where goblins lurk and faeries frolic and the monster may be the smiling bloke down the street.

Partly this is because the film's language is pure Midlands English, untranslated for Yanks, roaring off the screen in an aural blur. The movie sounds like John Lennon and Paul McCartney yakking on speed. I picked up on about 30 percent of it – the odd word, a sentence fragment here and there.

Yet there's no mistaking that the materials beneath this argot are classical: It's a story of adolescent friendship, good mothers, bad fathers, heroes and of course demons.

The demon here is a beaut, and even if you grasp only a tenth of the dialogue, it's still worth seeing for Paddy Considine's terrifying and charismatic performance. He plays Morell, a child-man of charm and command but also a volcanic inner life. He preys on children, with whom alone among humanity he feels comfortable. Skinny but strong, awkward yet lithe (a great dancer), he's a wannabe warrior dappled in Special Air Service camouflage as he patrols the streets looking for action in one of those weird minivans that only the British could design.

He finds it when he spies some older boys pounding two younger boys, Romeo Brass (Andrew Shim) and Gavin Woolley (Ben Marshall), and chases the bullies off. So Morell is initially the hero, the savior, the tough guy. And when he takes the bloodied Romeo home and spies his sister Ladine (Vicky McClure), he thinks he's found his love match. He attempts to woo Ladine by becoming best chums with Romeo, despite the 15-year difference between them.

Singularities whisper all through this film, however, and the strange Morell is but one of them. Romeo is black; his estranged father, Joe (Frank Harper), is white, and lives in a trailer out back, kept out of the house by court order (he beat his son abusively). Romeo's mother is black, his sister (or half-sister?) is white. You figure it out. Meanwhile, the unprepossessing Woolleys are white, and oddly compliant people, all of them.

Then there's the oddity of plot. It's our old friend the romantic triangle, but the threesome at odds consists of the two boys and the man who comes between them. Morell wants to ace Gavin out of Romeo's graces because he wants to use Romeo to help him with Ladine (futilely, as she has seen through him from the first second). Only in springing this ploy and in driving poor Gavin away do we realize what twisted ugliness lies beneath Morell's goofy exterior.

Morell gets darker and darker (as does the film), more demanding, crazier still. The mothers don't quite get it because he seems so silly; they don't notice how his narcissism is crushing the life out of their two boys. And suddenly the boys are left with two lamentable louts as guardians, those most irrelevant losers, those bozos who yell and drink and smoke too much. Of whom do I speak? Why, the dads of course.

The film has a bit too much treacly music for my taste, offered without irony. It sounds kind of skiffle-beat-'60s folky. I didn't like it. But the movie's got a spellbinding narrative drive, a human vitality, and a surprising mix of tones that mark it as unique.

"A Room for Romeo Brass" (88 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Janus) is rated R for profanity and intense portrayals of child abuse.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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