For three long years, Will Graham led a quiet life. Things are about to change.
Running Time: 99 minutes
US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15
Country: United Kingdom, United States
After his younger brother David (Jonathan Rhy Meyers) kills himself, one-time South London crimelord Will Graham (Clive Owen) returns to the big city from a self-imposed exile in the forests of Wales. Determined to uncover the mysterious circumstances of David’s suicide, Will hooks up with his old girlfriend Helen (Charlotte Rampling) and his former lieutenant Mickser (Jamie Foreman). Ignoring warnings that Turner (Ken Stott), the successor to Will’s criminal empire, wants him to leave town, Will follows a twisted trail leading him to luxury car salesman Boad (Malcolm McDowell) – and is reminded that no matter how much he may want to change, he will always be doomed to grieve for a life wasted.
Mike Hodges’ feature debut was Get Carter (1971), a gritty crime thriller in which Michael Caine’s now iconic hardman returned to his old turf to avenge his younger brother. Given the similar plot outline to be found in ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’, it is not only Will, but Hodges himself, who is revisiting his roots and trying to work out whether he has changed in the meantime. And changed he most certainly has – for while both films may end on a beach (‘I’ll Sleep…’ also begins on one), Will, unlike Carter, is not gunned down there, but instead left to reflect that “most thoughts are memories – and memories deceive…”. There is no hero’s death for Will, no tragic glory – only a worldweary flight back to isolation, silence and anonymity, after watching a man hit golfballs into the ocean (in an image that perfectly captures the futility of human endeavour).
Which is to say that ‘I’ll Sleep…’ is a brooding, nihilistic piece of film, far subtler and more haunting than ‘Get Carter’ ever was. Here violence, far from being celebrated or in any way ennobling for its practitioners, is presented as a pathetic brand of posturing amongst men whose fragile sense of masculinity is easily demolished. There is an actual male rape forming a pivotal episode in the film – but in fact most of the scenes of violence have a sexual element to them. “One day, I’m going to fuck him where he breathes”, says one gangster – while another is not just beaten up, but trussed up in a bra (as the ultimate humiliation in this world of ‘hard’ men). In such a context, where virility is always vulnerable, Ken Stott’s decision to inject a decidedly camp inflection into his portrayal of Turner makes perfect sense, underlining just how great a threat gruff, bearded Will represents to his status as the man in charge.
Clive Owen plays Will with laconic menace, Charlotte Rampling is all chiselled nuance as Will’s ‘posh totty’, and Malcolm McDowell is (miraculously) understated. Hodges shows a side of London that is a million miles from beefeaters and Big Ben. And Simon Fisher Turner’s spooky piano lilts set just the right tone of moody angst. The only problem with ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’ is a certain narrative unevenness. For in a film that is for the most part highly elliptical, occasional scenes that lack such economy (like David’s comic exchange with an unlicensed cabbie, or the overlong – if nicely performed – expositional scenes with a series of coroners and counsellors) are an unwelcome disruption of the story’s spare rhythm. Still, this is definitely one of the better films to have come out of Britain over the last decade – an existentialist noir in the tradition of Jean-Pierre Melville.
It's Got: Fantastically stylish animated opening credits, restrained performances, a (mostly) spare script, a brooding mood and an excellent soundtrack.
It Needs: To lose (or at least shorten) the occasional superfluous scene.
DVD Extras Scene selection; optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing; full audio commentary (director Mike Hodges and writer Trevor The Sweeney Preston), including the revelation that David was given a pet bird as an allusion to Melvilles Le Samouraï; Mike Hodges and Ill Sleep When Im Dead documentary (26min), featuring behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Hodges, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, producer Mike Caplan, Preston, Clive Owen, Sylvia Syms, Charlotte Rampling, Malcolm McDowell, as well as critics John Patterson and Jonathan Romney; two deleted scenes (the first with optional commentary from Hodges and Preston). Version reviewed: Ill Sleep When Im Dead (Momentum) DVD Extras Rating: 8/10
Alternatives:Get Carter (1971), Dead Mans Shoes
Masculinity is in crisis and the past persists in this brooding British noir.