This article was first published on Culturewatch.
Life in a broken world is deeply unjust. Some people breeze through life with material security, happy marriages and hardly a care in the world. Others struggle through every miserable day. The central character in Paddy Considine's astonishing and harrowing debut as writer-director, Joseph (Peter Mullan), is a struggler. Living on a sink estate in Leeds with only his dog for company, he spends his time in pubs and betting shops. We first hear, rather than see, him in a betting shop, roaring and bellowing with rage while his dog is tied up outside. Fuelled by booze, and boiling over with fury, Joseph unleashes his anger upon the first thing he sees as he stumbles out of the door. His boot connects with his dog with a sickening thud, and the reality of what he's just done knocks all the wind out of him. The next day, Joseph hurls a brick through the window of the Pakistani-run post office after being banned for his abusive behaviour, and then gets into a brawl with three lads in the pub.
When the lads turn on Joseph, he flees and takes refuge behind a clothing rail in a charity shop, to the surprise of Hannah (Olivia Colman), who runs the shop. She offers him tea and prayer. When Joseph remains silent, she asks God to touch him, and thanks God for bringing him there for a purpose. Joseph, crouching behind the coats, quietly weeps. The next morning, Hannah finds him, badly beaten, asleep outside the shop. 'I prayed for you last night,' Hannah tells him, but Joseph is dismissive: 'It didn't ******* work. . . . I don't think he heard you, love.' She presses him to explain why he has returned to the shop: 'Do you want God to forgive you for something?' she inquires. Joseph laughs bitterly: 'I don't want anything.' 'God loves you,' she tells him. Joseph's anger and hatred towards God come pouring out. He hurls abuse at Hannah, sneering at her middle class life, and questioning both her faith and her motivation for working in the shop. Afterwards, Joseph is appalled at his behaviour, asking himself, 'What the **** is wrong with you?' He returns to the shop the following day to apologise, they go for a drink, and Joseph asks Hannah to pray for his friend whose death is imminent.
Hannah's life is far from the untroubled existence which Joseph imagines, however. Her husband, James (Eddie Marsan), may appear charming and pleasant to most of the world, but in the privacy of his own home he is an abusive monster. When he grills her about why she wasn't in the shop that day and why she was seen with a man, she ends up with a black eye. Later, he too is full of regret over his actions and cries, 'I don't know what's wrong with me. . . . I don't deserve you. . . . I prayed to God but he doesn't hear me.' Hannah's life spirals out of control, driving her to take refuge with Joseph. The unlikely, but deeply touching, relationship between Joseph and Hannah is brilliantly portrayed by Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman. Colman, in particular, delivers an extraordinary performance. Peter Mullan remarks that 'Olivia had by far the most difficult part, because on the one hand she's playing someone who has a certain social face, that she has to put on, and then also has to keep her private misery behind that mask. That's a more difficult part than what Eddie and I had to do. To pitch that role is difficult, because on the one hand you've got to be someone who is a credible human being with a relatively straightforward life, but inside there's this terrific turmoil from the abuse she's suffering. I think she's astounding.'
It is very interesting that Paddy Considine chose to have a Christian as one of his main characters, though it's very hard to know what he really thinks about faith. The inspiration for Hannah came from Considine's research for his role as a Christian in Pawel Pawlikowski's 2004 film, My Summer of Love:
As I was doing my research, I found out about this charity shop, and how people would come in drunk and just vent their anger at the volunteers. One of the women would close the door and pray for them; a lot of the time she'd be afraid but she had this faith that overrode everything. She'd pray for these people and they'd come back day-on-day, oftentimes quite sober and apologetic. That shop became like a haven, and she was the sort of person who attracted these kinds of people.
There is a sense in which, as a Christian, Hannah embodies the idea of redemption. Her faith is no naïve wish-fulfilment lived out in a bubble of unreality, but one which both sees God as rescuer and also results in practical care for those in need. This drives her to deep compassion for Joseph - despite his sneering abusiveness - and for his dying friend. Yet at the same time, she is deeply damaged by James's violence, driven by it to actions which are profoundly unchristian. She is desperately in need of redemption herself, as is Joseph, though he makes the all-too-familiar mistake of assuming that he is beyond the point of ever finding it. Both Hannah and Joseph are so used to the pain in their lives that they expect no change, but their encounter with each other transforms them. Peter Mullan observes:
When I read the script I took it as an allegory; It's about saving souls - whether that's domestic abuse, social violence or a neighbour from hell - it's not a single issue piece. It's about two souls who are adrift, confused and desperate to find some kind of solace, some kind of peace in their lives. Theirs is a spiritual connection - not necessarily religious - and a spiritual journey, about the connection of souls. There's this anger, the spirituality, the hope and the loss, and on a more grounded psychological level all the characters are trying to stay afloat in a variety of ways, and, ultimately, in very destructive ways.
While watching Tyrannosaur is a harrowing, traumatic experience, the film is nevertheless infused with a delicate hopefulness. Life can be bleak and violent and chaotic, but there are hints of joy and optimism - in friendship and community, compassion and tenderness. In his book Useless Beauty, Robert K. Johnston writes about films in relation to the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, which recognises the meaninglessness of life when people live without reference to God, and yet reminds us that God is still at work. The writer of Ecclesiastes says that 'God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God's work from beginning to end' (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Johnston refers to the glimmers of this reality as 'fragile beauty', which seems precisely right for describing the developing relationship between Joseph and Hannah, as well as for the hope that begins to take root and grow in their hearts.
Considine seems to see Joseph and Hannah as bringing about each other's redemption, rather than God doing so. Yet at the same time, perhaps he cannot quite shut the door on the idea of God being at work, in the way that Joseph did when he raved at Hannah. Is Considine aware that, when Hannah thanks God for bringing Joseph into the shop for a purpose, the whole film could be seen as an outworking of that? And as a testament, too, to the terrible consequences of human freedom expressed in a will to power over others? When, right at the very end of the film, Joseph confesses that he found himself praying although he doesn't believe, Considine is - perhaps unwittingly - hinting at the way God sometimes gently draws to himself those who find themselves at the absolute end of their own resources to put the world right.
Joseph asks himself the question, 'What the **** is wrong with you?' He confesses to not being 'a nice human being', but deep down he longs to be. He knows that, however bleak his circumstances have been, the answer to the question of what is wrong does not, ultimately, lie in the world around him, but in his own heart. He refers to his late wife as a 'tyrannosaur' because of the way she clumped around the house, but he is the monster, attacking and biting anyone who gets in his way. So is James. So is Hannah. A tyrannosaur lives in all of us, and the only way it can ever become a mere fossil is for us to discover the extraordinary truth that Hannah insisted on to Joseph: 'God loves you.'