Totally unexpectedly, as I don’t like Brit gangster films particularly — so many sociopaths, so little time — I loved, loved, loved, loved, loved Wild Bill and, for those of you who are slow on the uptake, let me say four times more: I loved, loved, loved, loved it. It may not even be a gangster film proper, although it is certainly being sold as such, with a poster that’s all tattooed fist. This is a shame, as it’s actually a rather delicate and elegant piece of work combining great storytelling, a terrific script, and characters you can seriously care about, and do. It hits all the marks. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. And you’ll love it as many times over as you can accommodate. If you are not very busy, for example, you may even love it 24 times over before lunch, and 17 afterwards.
Directed by Dexter Fletcher (the actor, for whom this is a directorial debut), who also co-wrote it (with Danny King), this is, he has said, a film ‘about a man who is a boy and a boy who is a man’. The man who is a boy is ‘Wild’ Bill Hayward (Charlie Creed-Miles) who returns to his East End, high-rise council estate after eight years in prison. Yes, it is one of those tower-block movies, but not the fantastically grim sort that makes you want to kill yourself — see Tyrannosaur, Nil by Mouth, Fish Tank, etc. — because it has such warmth and humour. Bill returns to his flat, where he discovers his two sons, 15-year-old Dean (Will Poulter) and 11-year-old Jimmy (Sammy Williams), have been fending for themselves since their mother buggered off to Spain nine months earlier with her new fella. Dean is the boy who has become a man. He’s ditched school and works off the books at the Olympic construction site to support Jimmy. He is surrounded by Russian builders because, as the local publican notes, British kids don’t want to work any more. ‘All they want to do,’ he sighs, ‘is audition for that bender Simon Cowell.’ That is just one of the splendid lines in this film.
Dean is furious that his father has returned but that’s OK, as Bill has no intention of hanging around. He does not know these boys (Jimmy doesn’t even remember him) and plans to go to work on the oil rigs in Scotland. But then social services get a whiff of what’s going on, and, unless he stays, the boys will be taken into care. Dean is on to a drug deal his father plans to make, and threatens to grass him up unless he stays long enough for the care team to go away. However, Bill’s life on the estate is complicated and an escalating series of drug dealers — including Andy Serkis as the estate’s Mr Big — are determined to make his life as difficult as they can.
OK, we know Bill is going to man up and father up, because we know this is the cliché at work here and, yes, there are other clichés. There is even a tart with a heart, Roxy, as played by Liz White. But it doesn’t matter because, although Bill is not a good man especially — back in the day, he was known as ‘a top-class nut-job’ — Creed-Miles’s performance is so wondrously nuanced and sympathetic we take to him, and root for him, and desperately want him to stay out of trouble. This is a film of heart, without ever being sentimental, plus it’s often extremely funny — wait until you see what Bill buys for Dean’s 16th birthday! — and packed with lovely narrative flourishes, like Dean’s tentative, poignant courtship of a gym-slip mum. Disappointingly, the ending is a bit silly and cartoonish, and suddenly the film becomes an unlikely Western, but by this time, who cares? You’ve been well won over already.
This is a terrific cinematic debut with sure direction, and some fine cinematography, including a beautiful shot of a paper plane serenely swooping over Stratford. And although, I suppose, it’s an archetypal ex-villain-trying-to-go straight story, the performances and script elevate it to something else, and it does not rely on violent gimmicks. It is even exceptionally mild in this respect. No-one gets their face slashed, for example. Or their knees blown off. You’re going to love this film, I think. Or did I say that already?
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 24, 2012