Elevate Difference

44 Inch Chest

Colin Diamond (Ray Winstone) is a pot-bellied British gangster happily married to Liz, his wife of twenty-one years (Joanne Whalley). The problem is she’s not happily married to him. When Liz tells Colin she’s leaving him for a lover, he slides from incredulity to rage. Marital delusions wrecked, he resorts to gangster methodology. He assaults his wife (mostly off-screen) to get the lothario’s name—a studly French waiter (Melvil Poupaud).

Colin has a four-man crew with whom he toils at their underworld trade. Meredith (Ian McShane), Archie (Tom Wilkinson), Mal (Stephen Dillane), and Old Man Peanut (John Hurt) comprise the crew. The five men kidnap Liz’s lover and spirit him blindfolded to an abandoned building in some skanky corner of London. After severely beating the Frenchman (also off-screen), the men stuff him in an armoire (hence the film’s title).

As night passes in this lonely place, the crew decries Liz’s infidelity and assuages Colin’s wounded ego. Much of their embittered talk insists on the holiness of marriage and the treason of adultery. As they prattle on, the film feels somewhat like a bizarre, kvetching men’s group. This lends a comic edge to the proceedings—despite the kidnapping, hallucinatory episodes interspersed with realist scenes, and threat of imminent murder.

44 Inch Chest has received positive notices. Reviewers have praised its sharp, plentiful dialogue (in strong British accents), and fine acting. The script is by the duo who penned Sexy Beast, a superior gangster film from ten years back in which Winstone also starred and Ben Kingsley played the scary villain. The dialogue and acting in this new film are, indeed, superb; however, the ending has been described as weak, limp, and anti-climactic.

I beg to differ with this judgment on the last ten minutes of the film. On the surface, 44 Inch Chest seems to be a revenge narrative and gangster piece—both of which demand a boffo finale—and this doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen because whatever its genre tendencies, this movie is not about underworld types locked in mortal combat. Rather, 44 Inch Chest is an exposé of misogyny, homophobia, and machismo. This makes the film a rara avis in the history of cinema.

Colin and his crew make much of marriage and the sacred bonds between men and women. They ground their intent to murder Liz’s lover in his betrayal of marriage and the sentiments upon which marriage is founded. As the film progresses, though, we discover that only Colin and Old Man Peanut, who has a history of spousal abuse, are married. Archie lives with his mother, Meredith is a gay man who prefers emotionless sex, and Mal would like to bed Liz—the very reason the waiter may be killed. All the crew betray themselves as violent hypocrites and sanctimonious egocentrics.

In Lady Chatterly’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence set about to liberate the c-word by using it in a context of love and sensuality (the c-word derives from cunnus, Latin for “nest,” a lovely etymology). These gangsters employ the c-word to describe each other and other men. The epithet occurs so many times, and always in a degrading and violent way, that its effect and meaning grows and compounds. While spouting their clichés about love and marriage, these men actually seem to hate vaginas and the women attached to them.

The triumph of 44 Inch Chest lies in its revealing of the misogyny and machismo that can lie beneath the surface of men’s attitudes. Apart from its considerable artistic triumphs, the film deserves to be seen for this reason alone. As to that ending, it’s perfect: surprisingly compassionate considering all that has gone before and optimistic about the ability of humans to change.

Written by: Neil Flowers, January 27th 2010