'The Violators': Film Review

Courtesy of Red Union Films
See you later, violator.

Gritty social drama meets psychological thriller in this low-budget British debut set on the fringes of Liverpool.

A bracingly bleak blast of social realism from a corner of England rarely seen on screen, The Violators marks the feature debut of British novelist turned film-maker Helen Walsh. Featuring two striking young female leads, the drama takes place against a classic backdrop of poverty and deprivation, but with the added complications of sex and voyeurism, hidden agendas and family secrets. Currently screening in U.K. theaters after picking up acclaim on the global festival circuit, this teen-driven low-budget production falls into some familiar first-timer traps, lacking the punch or originality to make waves beyond niche arthouse circles. Even so, Walsh clearly has the potential to extend her reach into Lynne Ramsay or Andrea Arnold territory as her cinematic career evolves.

The unnamed location is Birkenhead, an economically depressed port town on the Mersey estuary in northwest England, close to Liverpool. The 15-year-old heroine Shelly (rising British TV star Lauren McQueen) is a working-class beauty, outwardly street tough but inwardly brittle, chiefly occupied with playing surrogate mother to her deadbeat older brother Andy (Derek Barr) and younger half brother Jerome (Callum King Chadwick). The trio’s real mother is ominously absent, presumably dead, while their violent father is in jail, his looming release a source of growing anxiety to the siblings. Predators are everywhere in this rust-belt ghetto, some with obviously carnal motives, others playing a more subtly seductive game.

With Andy menaced by loan sharks and Jerome targeted by racist bullies, Shelly is grudgingly swayed by the protective sugar-daddy promises of Mikey (Penny Dreadful regular Stephen Lord), a middle-aged womanizer with petty criminal connections. Less overtly manipulative but potentially just as dangerous is Rachel (Brogan Ellis), an emotionally wounded rich girl from a gated residential estate who wins Shelly’s uneasy friendship with free gifts, fancy meals and flirtatious intimacy. A toxic unspoken connection between Mikey and Rachel only surfaces in the final act after a jarringly joyless, painfully raw real-time sex scene triggers an implausible revenge-murder plot.

All shot within a small area of Birkenhead, The Violators betrays its limited resources at times with stilted dialogue, bumpy pacing, and stiff performances from inexperienced young cast members. Such emotionally charged subject matter should have more dramatic bite, while the final resolution feels a little too smooth and schematic. That said, the 18-year-old McQueen exudes quietly magnetic star quality, her nuanced performance and photogenic looks hinting at a rich screen future. Ellis impresses too, her unreadable intensity suggestive of a young Saoirse Ronan. And Lord’s wolfish charisma makes Mikey more realistically complex, a Faustian charmer rather than the sleazy stalker he might have been.

Walsh and cinematographer Tobin Jones also milk maximum sensory effect from minimal ingredients, finding glimmers of visual poetry in dismal social housing and hidden pockets of post-industrial wasteland, all bathed in warm surges of ambient music. Thankfully, The Violators stops short of romanticizing poverty or deprivation, merely suggesting that beauty and lyricism can be found in even the toughest neighborhoods.

Production companies: Red Union Films

Cast: Lauren McQueen, Brogan Ellis, Stephen Lord, Liam Ainsworth, Derek Barr, Callum King Chadwick, Jennifer Hennessy

Director, screenwriter: Helen Walsh

Cinematographer: Tobin Jones

Editor: Kyle Ogden

Producers: David Moores, David A. Hughes

Music: David A. Hughes

Sales company: Red Union Films, London

No rating, 100 minutes