The Grit & Grime Of Helen Walsh’s “The Violators” Is Punctuated By The Bold Brilliance Of Star Lauren McQueen
Author Helen Walsh marks her feature film debut as writer-director with this hard-hitting urban drama about innocence lost and under-class survival. It proves to be tough viewing, punctuated by the brilliant performance of teenage actress Lauren McQueen.
The Violators is uncomfortable viewing. Novelist Helen Walsh’s striking film debut is a visceral portrait of a post-industrial landscape corroded by urban putrescence and a complete, suffocating loss of hope. With a backdrop of male grooming, domestic violence and rape, Walsh bludgeons her audience. We experience this through the eyes of a teenage protagonist whose imperturbable exterior masks years of pain; a steely defence mechanism protecting a vulnerable soft centre.
That The Violators works as a piece of gritty British realism is almost entirely due to the bold, brave performance of actress Lauren McQueen. She is the young girl at the centre of this sink estate nightmare, her ambitions as an attractive, intelligent woman castrated by familial responsibility and a sense of social marginalisation. She has seemingly accepted her situation, withdrawing into a daily routine of petty crime and time wasting.
Her bleak outlook is unsettling and, at times, overbearing but Walsh coaxes a wonderfully multi-dimensional performance from McQueen that demands that we care. We want her survival to become something more; something worthwhile and, perhaps, life affirming. McQueen’s courage is well beyond her years and works beautifully for her character – a fifteen-year-old who has endured far too much suffering for someone so young.
Certainly, the strength of the actress’s turn helps dilute some of The Violators’ shortcomings. Walsh, a first-timer behind the camera, has written a strong script with the nuances of place and time intact, but the wider scope of her story begins to crack when McQueen’s Shelly has to deal with the antagonists in her life. There’s the pawn shop owner, the slimy Mikey (an excellent Stephen Lord), who insidiously breaks down this girl’s display of defiance to satisfy his own libidinous routine. There’s also the unsettled middle class girl Rachel (Brogan Ellis) who develops an unhealthy obsession with Shelly.
These fractious relationships define Shelly’s motionless journey; an objectified young woman who unwittingly becomes a toy to be played with. Walsh’s strength lies in the pseudo friendship developed between Mikey and Shelly. It’s an intense stage for predator and prey. Her only misstep here is overextending the point: too many shots of Shelly’s bottom in tight jeans.
Comparatively, Shelly’s new acquaintance Rachel fits less naturally into her character’s narrative. Her tantrums from middle class suburbia might be a fitting counterpoint to Shelly’s under-class misery were it not for a distracting otherness about her motivation that feels oddly out of place. It is perhaps Walsh’s point but the machinations of their relationship lack the gut-punch reality of Mikey’s voracious pursuit. This ultimately leads to a wholly unsatisfactory conclusion when the grit and grime of The Violators makes way for melodrama and artificial rose-tinting.
Evidently, Walsh is better at mood and ambience when it comes to her screen fiction. At least at this juncture. And that’s no bad thing. With her director of photography Tobin Jones she composes a sobering image of her Cheshire locale (a stand-in for any number of British towns and cities feeling the brunt of unemployment and lack of opportunity), its physical decay clawing perpetually at the characters that inhabit it. There’s some haunting images using natural light and the aesthetic of the film’s on-location shoot. She’s also clearly adept at making her actors feel at ease. One scene in particular, where a selfless fragility in Shelly is literally laid bare, will undoubtedly linger in the memory.
The Violators resonates. It has some structural flaws and lacks an ending worthy of McQueen’s brilliant central performance but more than satisfies as an intimate uncovering of a societal underbelly we’d rather leave voiceless and secreted away. Clearly, Walsh has talent as a storyteller and she’s proven she has a knack for cinematic presentation. She must also be praised for casting McQueen in her first film role, an actress boasting natural skill and a seemingly effortless screen presence.
Written by Dan Stephens
Top 10 Films reviewed the DVD (released July 25, 2016) of The Violators courtesy of Bulldog Film Distribution