The Violators is a stark and effective tale of life on a rundown estate for three siblings, both written and directed by Helen Walsh as her debut feature.
With their abusive father in prison and their respective mothers out of the picture, Shelly (Lauren McQueen) and her younger step-brother Jerome (Callum King Chadwick) are left under the care of their irresponsible older step-brother Andy (Derek Barr) who is struggling to cope with his role as a legal guardian. The ever-looming threat of their imprisoned father being granted parole strikes fear into the heart of all three siblings as they try to make ends meet in a dilapidated and depressing town. Forced to sell goods at the local pawn shop for cash, Shelly attracts the unwanted advances of the shop’s shifty owner, Mikey Finnegan (Stephen Lord) – who just so happens to have a debt to settle with Andy.
Shelly’s troubled childhood may explain her tendency to steal – flashbacks to scenes involving Shelly’s father hint at a darker past that is only briefly touched upon – and she finds a partner in crime by teaming up with another loner, Rachel (Brogan Ellis), when wandering the estate. The chemistry between Shelly and Rachel isn’t instantaneous, and this gradual understanding of each other adds a layer of depth to their blossoming friendship, with both actors demonstrating the right amount of strength and vulnerability to play troubled adolescent girls.
Amongst the grim decay of Shelly’s estate, inventive camera angles find beauty by showing a serene side to run-down buildings and their surroundings. This allows both Shelly and the audience time to reflect on her various predicaments, with the accompanying soundtrack heightening the momentary peaceful ambience. What works really well during these scenes is the sense of inner turmoil building up inside Shelly; she is clearly torn by her own desire and the need to protect her brothers, but how far is she willing to go for her family?
The Violators is an assured debut that showcases a number of promising talents, even if it is a little rough around the edges, and fans of gritty British dramas from the likes of Andrea Arnold (Red Road, Fish Tank) and Clio Barnard (The Arbor, The Selfish Giant) would do well to seek this out. Although The Violators doesn’t strike as hard as the aforementioned films it still packs a powerful gut-punch with a story line that keeps you second guessing up until the end, and a commendable central performance from Lauren McQueen as the troubled Shelly.
Where The Violators almost falls down is in its overly serious tone; smatterings of humour would have lightened the sombre mood of the screenplay, as well as providing the audience with further opportunities to empathise with the main characters. British directors such as Mike Leigh and Shane Meadows make space for humour even in their bleakest scripts, and a similar approach could have provided The Violators with more emotional heft, as the actions of characters we are deeply invested in are far more likely to resonate with us than those we are only mildly interested in.
First time director Helen Walsh has still crafted a number of fascinating characters that bring life to a thought-provoking script, and I will certainly be on board to see where she heads with her next project. If you are tired of the unoriginal blockbusters that are churned out by the studios at this time of the year then take a punt on The Violators; a fine example of ambitious, independent film-making that you shouldn’t let pass you by unnoticed.
Review by Tom Bielby