44 Inch Chest
In this world of dirty crime and pathological masculinity—where people have names like Old Man Peanut and instead of opening windows smash through them with their fists—the worst offence imaginable is cuckoldry.

Plot summary

A jealous husband and his friends plot the kidnapping of his wife's lover with the intention of restoring his wounded ego.

From the cunts who brought you Sexy Beast. If that line alarmed you, perhaps this is not a film to your tastes.  Not being a native English speaker—I grew up speaking American—I was still fully able to glean meaning from this story of a bunch of diamond geezahs, err ahhh, proper ‘ard, they is, mainly because this sort of testosterone-sodden glorification of all unpleasant things male is such a staple of modern British film as to be a cliché.  There’s the aforementioned Sexy Beast, there’s the oeuvre (most of it) of Guy Ritchie, there’s the recent Harry Brown.  But, detractors may say, certainly this is a film that challenges that male stereotype, as we see Colin (Ray Winstone) losing his macho grip on himself (‘sad empty shell….’urts your eyes.  Can even look at ‘im,’ says Old Man Peanut, ‘you’re a man, act like one!’) but it revels too gleefully in this posturing, this 44-inch chest puffery, to be able to stake a critical appraisal of it.  We see Colin as his gang sees him, a strange lachrymose sack where once Ray Winstone stood.

In this world of dirty crime and pathological masculinity—where people have names like Old Man Peanut, Biggy Walpole, and Bumface, and instead of opening windows smash through them with their fists—the worst offence imaginable is cuckoldry.  Actually, that seems to be the second worst offence, the worst actually being crying about it instead of killing the…well, in the words of the characters, the fucking wife-fucker. Feelings are bad enough for a regular person, let alone a man.   So the gang gather to attempt to masculate what has been emasculated by the most perfidious threat imaginable—a wilful woman—and her conspirator (to push the perfidy to near cartoonish extremes of male panic), a Frenchman!

As, I believe, Nabokov once said (only more eloquently) madness in art is boring, it’s the descent into madness that’s interesting.  I think that may be the biggest problem with 44 Inch Chest.  We see, in the opening tracking shot, Colin prostrate and sobbing, a crushed man, soothing himself with Nilsson singing ‘Without You.’  He broods, and effuses, and sputters in self-pity.  But he is not an empathetic figure, a man encapsulating the extremes of grief: he is a clown, a clown of sadness, pussy-whipped, a cry baby Nancy.  We never met the ‘ard geezah pinnacle from which he fell, so don’t get the impact of the downfall that so troubles his colleagues.  Perhaps that’s the genius of casting of casting Ray Winstone; we get the impact absent from the movie itself because we see moist and doughy heap of a man as that nasty boy from Scum, that snarling bloke from Nil By Mouth.  Etc.  The movie is reliant on the viewers’ film history to get it’s first act.

I could have sworn I was watching a filmed stage play and was surprised to find that this is its original form. This chamber piece mostly takes place in a grimy room and its accompanying hallway, with frequent flash-outs that screamed ‘opening up the play.’  The style of editing also felt stagey, with choppy quick cuts so the actors can rapidly fire off quips in a game of verbal Hackey Sack, bon mots like a box of bon-bons, mainly for puerile pleasure of watching some fine ageing actors get to say ‘cunt’ a few times.  Now, I like hearing an Academy Award nominated thespian say ‘cunt’ as much as the next guy (I got a frisson picturing the BBFC with their abacus counting the ‘cunts’). I also recognize that this is an adolescent thrill for me.

As a troupe, the cast of excellent actors are paraded out in a diorama of cardboard archetypes.  Tom Wilkinson plays Archie, an apron-wearing nan-lover, cooking soup to eat in front of the TV and saying things like ‘well and truly cream-crackered’ and ‘talkin a load of cobbler’s’.  John Hurt is superb as Old Man Peanut (the resemblance is striking), a crusty old-world gangster with rather martial ideas about the treatment of women.  Hurt delivers one of the film’s most delightful bits of extraneous business as they wait for Colin to off the Frenchman.  Director Malcolm Venville gives us the original footage of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah as Hurt narrates Samson exacting revenge—‘Fuck you, ‘ave some of this’—and razing the temple—‘they built things proper then’—before arriving at the moral: ‘he’s killed the whole fucking lot of them. All because of a woman.’  Old Man Peanut also engages in a homophobic contretemps with Meredith, played by Ian McShane, who is gay.  Natty, dapper, Meredith is introduced eyeing the taut, grapefruit mounds of a naked boy’s buttocks.  There seems to be no good reason for the character to be gay, except, perhaps, to show that gays can be as sociopathically unemotional as a straight man yet still be camp.  Indeed, he is the most fearsome of the pack, terrifying as he describes his recipe for avoiding complications such as the one Colin is debilitated by: ‘the five Fs— find, follow, finger, fuck, forget.’

There is a moment of grace near the end, after Colin gives an inarticulate soliloquy to love, beyond eloquence, when the French waiter lays his hands on Colin’s head.  But the catharsis doesn’t ring true because his motive is unknown, and a note of healing, or forgiveness, or the universality of humanness, seems saccharine in a film that is otherwise so jokey and self-knowing, one whose real pleasure is watching a bunch of watchable veterans chew up the scenery.