A Room for Romeo Brass
review by Elias Savada, 3 November 2000

In a year of generally lost expectations, American moviegoers now bedeviled by Bedazzled, besodden by Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, and shamelessly manipulated in Pay It Forward should rejoice in the simple pleasures of A Room for Romeo Brass. After his invigorating twentyfourseven -- a bravura black-and-white debut feature that covers some of the same territory and family problems as his latest effort -- U.K. filmmaker Shane Meadows’ second full-length film is a remarkably unadorned tale of youthful foibles, of childhood friendships strained and rejoined amid the Midlands council estates (what we here in the U.S. would call a working class housing project). Painted on the bare canvas of his own adolescence relationship with co-writer and now famed choreographer Paul Fraser, Meadows’ coming-of-age tale is told with natural brushstrokes and earth tone colors. You won’t find any day-glo special effects and barely a tracking shot over its ninety-minute length. Yet it will be more of a reaffirming experience and its high spirits will linger much longer amid the clutter of big-budget, over-hyped studio releases this season.

The original cast (you’ll probably only recognize Bob Hoskins -- star of twentyfourseven -- in a small bit as a narcoleptic tutor, and possibly Frank Harper from Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) features three unknowns: Andrew Shim and Ben Marshall star as Romeo Brass and Gavin "Knocks" Woolley are the guileless incarnations of vulnerable thirteen-year-olds caught in the seductive world of Morell, an eccentric character filled with violent underpinnings by newcomer Paddy Considine. An accomplished photographer and friend for years with the director (they played in a band together), Considine had long ago given up hope of an professional acting career based on amateur aspirations, but his presence is one of the most compelling performances of the year, let alone for a novice screen thespian. As with his earlier film, music also enhances the flavor of the story, with selections from Fairport Convention (Matty Groves) and the thirty-five-year-old "Colours" by Donovan Leitch among the gems picked from euphonious obscurity.

The boys are neighbors and best friends; the fact that one is black and the other white never plays into the equation of their friendship; they quip over the chubby Romeo’s eating habits and his selfish demeanor, while the irresolute Gavin suffers from a bad back and hides behind a distorted sense of humor. Rather, it is the introduction of the mysterious Morell that splits the lads apart as they jockey for favor with him as virtual father figure. Their real dads are noticeably without inspiration. Romeo’s estranged father Joe (Frank Harper) is a selfish bastard who has fractured the family’s confidence, while Gavin’s spineless breadwinner Bill (James Higgins) is a devout couch potato and girly-magazine devotee who likes to confiscates errant soccer balls that land in his back yard. When Morell slaps around some playground bullies that pick on the boys, a tentative trilogy is formed, further cemented by the weirdly unsophisticated stranger’s attraction to Romeo’s sister Ladine (Vicky McClure), and the lads’ amusing efforts to recast the crude misfit (his clothes place him at the bottom of the social pyramid) as a Dapper Dan. Initially presented as a fanciful comic figure, Morell’s mating rituals are coarse and hilarious, and he scores just a brief kiss from Ladine, and that is merely as a favor to her brother.

The film meanders along in day-in-the-life-of routine before taking an unexpectedly dark turn that distances the boys at a key junction in their association. Gavin is the first to see the true nature of the neighborhood beast, but his friend is blind to the gloom down the street. Their alienation forces Gavin to recover from back surgery in quiet dullness with his family, while Romeo spins off into delinquency before a truly repugnant madness confronts him head on. While bordering on melodrama as both families face up to the dark edge of sanity, there is a heartwarming, magical ending that clears the skies and smoothes the battle scars of life.

Award-winner Ashley Rowe’s straightforward cinematography differs sharply from his brilliant work on twentyfourseven, and he was probably chomping at the bit to add more sophisticated touches. Crispian Sallis’s production design is uncluttered; I loved the dinosaur wallpaper in Gavin’s bedroom.

Hopefully Meadows’ film won’t get lost in an overcrowded marketplace, particularly if filmgoers have to choose between A Room for Romeo Brass and the overly charming British Billy Elliot. There’s certainly space for both, and British audiences have warmed considerably to Elliot, winner of the British Independent Film Award last month (Romeo lost out at last year’s ceremony to Gods and Monsters). Elliot, being pushed to the hilt for Oscar consideration, has more marketing power (via Universal Pictures) to shut out Romeo in the foreign film category, but Romeo’s unpretentious low-key approach offers a more realistic story that will fill any movie house with winners who opt for something remarkably fresh.

Click here to read Elias Savada's interview with Shane Meadows.

Directed by:
Shane Meadows

Andrew Shim
Ben Marshall
Paddy Considine
Frank Harper
Julia Ford
James Higgins
Vicky McClure
Ladene Hall
Bob Hoskins

Written by:
Paul Fraser 
Shane Meadows







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