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Non-Review Review: Wild Bill

Wild Bill is the charming directorial debut from veteran character actor Dexter Fletcher. The established actor, who has worked on projects as diverse as Band of Brothers, Press Gang and The Three Musketeers, also wrote the screenplay for this slightly quirky British domestic drama, which sees an absentee father fostering an emotional connection with his abandoned kids. It’s a fairly conventional plot, and Fletcher doesn’t cram too many surprises in there, but the movie is wry enough and has a thinly-cynical exterior that makes the pill easy enough to follow. It’s not  quite a masterpiece, but it’s engaging and diverting enough to leave a pleasant impression.

Wild at heart...

Wild Bill is nothing if not predictable. Save perhaps the last two minutes of the film, the character arcs are pretty much preordained from the moment we’re introduced to William Hayward and his two abandoned children. Bill just spent eight years in prison, and his mother has absconded with her lover, leaving his two children to fend for themselves. Bill claims to be just stopping by on his way to a new life up in Scotland, away from any former associates who might feel uncomfortable with his presence, but we know how the film is going to play out.

In fairness to the script from Fletcher and associate Danny King, the film takes the edge off this tried-and-tested formula for family bonding by being relatively candid, and adding the slightest surface veneer of cynicism. Brought to life in a superb central performance by Charlie Creed-Miles, the movie seems to accept that Bill isn’t necessarily the sharpest tool in the box. He doesn’t seem to have his wits about him, whether dealing with his kids, his fellow gangsters or the social services.

Taking a Firm hand...

He accidentally lands his kids in trouble, and risks sending the two to foster care. It isn’t out of malice, but out of a genuine lack of thought. While he does understand some aspects of the stuff that his kids are going through – before the film is out, he’s helped one son in love and helped steer the other straight – there’s never a sense that Bill is entirely in control of his circumstances. Even during the obligatory “everything goes swell” phase of this drama, before the mandatory third act “everything goes pear-shaped” bit, it seems like Bill hasn’t mastered the art of parenting, but is still largely winging it.

Even the basic set up seems at least a little bit subversive. Bill doesn’t try to connect with his kids, at least not in a meaningful way, and they want him gone. He doesn’t have a grand epiphany about what he’s been missing or anything like that, and they don’t necessarily want a father-figure like him hanging around. Instead, with the threat of foster care looming large, his eldest son blackmails him into playing the role of a caring parent in order to get social services off their backs by stealing a massive amount of drugs. It’s not the most radical of set-ups, but it avoids seeming too earnest or sincere or sweet.

You've got to be kidding me...

The rest of the story is fairly paint-by-numbers. Bill meets an attractive prostitute who he slowly welcomes into his life as her pimp gets abusive. His eldest son has difficulty flirting with an attractive girl down the street with her own problems. His youngest son ends up indebted to a mobster who has his own score to settle with Bill. Although initially forced reluctantly, Bill comes to love the kids, and they come to gradually accept him. None of this is anything that will shock viewers.

In fairness, the movie does have a number of discreet charms. The most obvious is the script itself, which is quite witty. This helps offset the more earnest stuff, and I especially like the confrontation at the movie’s climax, which sees a Bill taking confronting a gang of goons who aren’t necessarily loyal past the point of stupidity. The dialogue does stop things from ever becomingtoo sweet and adds a certain charm to the film.

Not quite an off-the-shelf British family drama...

The cast is also, to be honest, pretty awesome. Will Poulter does struggle a bit as the older of the two siblings (though he’s better here than in Prince Caspian), but the rest of the cast is great. Charlie Creed-Miles makes an impression in the lead role, and it’s great to see Liz White given a part to sink her teeth into.

Fletcher has also assembled a pretty impressive collection of supporting actors who tend to pop by for a scene or two at a time. Sean Pertwee, Marc Warren, Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng all add their talents to the film, and it’s the better for their involvement. Andy Serkis makes the most of a tiny supporting role as the local kingpin, a surprisingly (seemingly) affable gangster in a suit who is driven around in a souped-up Nissan Micra. Everybody seems to be enjoying themselves, and it rubs off on the rest of the film.

Ringmaster of this Serkis...

Wild Bill isn’t necessarily exceptional, and it does adhere a bit too rigidly to the formula for these types of family dramas. However, it has a witty script and solid cast to help counter the somewhat predictable plotting and structure.  It’s a solid little British film, with a fair amount of charm to it.

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