Reuniting many of the team behind 2000’s Sexy Beast, actor/producers Ray Winstone and Ian McShane working from a script from Louis Mellis and David Scinto, 44 Inch Chest begins with Winstone flat on his back, though this time he’s far from the beating sun of a Spanish poolside.
Reeling from the news that his wife, Liz (Joanne Whalley), is leaving him for a younger man (Melvil Poupaud), Colin Diamond (Ray Winstone) decides to take revenge upon the pair in the only way he knows how: with extreme violence.
Roping in his best friends – Meredith (McShane), Archie (Tom Wilkinson), Mal (Stephen Dillane) and Old Man Peanut (John Hurt) – Diamond must decide exactly what form his revenge on Loverboy will take, a decision informed by the experiences and unique viewpoints of his peers.
Opening on the face of a sweating and exhausted Ray Winstone, it’s immediately clear that what we’re about to watch isn’t going to be an easy ride: Diamond is a force of nature, enough suppressed energy coursing through his veins to power the National Grid for at least a week.
The first 15 minutes of the film are breathless, the gang setting out to bring Diamond’s love rival to justice in the type of London house not seen on-screen since the Ealing comedies of the 1950s, a London of smoky gambling dens, larger-than-life Cockney gangsters and unfettered masculinity.
Once contained in the house it’s left to the dialogue and the performances to sell the story, the group remaining in just two rooms for the remaining 80 minutes as Diamond makes his decision.
Aware that keeping some of the country’s finest acting talent confined to such a small space could be a problem, the writers conspire to manipulate the timeline of events, throwing in flashbacks, fantasy sequences and one of the most visually arresting references to another film likely to be seen in a film this year.
These tricks are at first distracting, jarring with the real world of the film’s characters, but come to be integral to the story. Of the cast, McShane camps it up nicely as the über-gay Meredith while Hurt is the owner of the foulest mouth since Sexy Beast’s Ben Kingsley let rip as Don Logan.
Wilkinson, Dillane and Whalley each get their share of the dialogue, the latter given little time to shine in this male-dominated scenario, but it’s Winstone who mesmerises in the quieter moments of the film.
Holding back from much of the verbal haranguing, Winstone imbues Diamond with a childlike presence at odds with his hard man image in an intimate scene with wife’s new lover. Diamond’s speech about what it means to be in love is beautiful, a heart-wrenching eulogy which delivers more of a blow to the solar plexus than any fist could hope to.
Though at times it feels like director Malcolm Venville has simply taken a camera to a stage play and pressed record, the film succeeds thanks to the exaggerated performances of a cast clearly enjoying themselves with a consistently strong, and very funny, script.