Jonathan Glazer’s debut feature is about a happily retired gangster whose past comes a knocking as he sizzles in the Costa del Sol. It does not sing its romantic credentials from the rooftops. The most iconic image of Sexy Beast is an aerial shot of Ray Winstone’s Gal Dove in yellow budgie smugglers and sunglasses, sweat shining off his lobster-pink body. In the film, the title then appears, played for laughs at the expense of the leading man.
Nonetheless, Gal is part of a sincere love story that shapes the gangster sequences with touches so understated that they feel like momentary hallucinations, like a smoke ring in the shape of a heart. Foul-mouthed sociopath Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) and beady-eyed sociopath Teddy Bass (Ian McShane) may force Gal back into crime and violence but it is DeeDee (Amanda Redman) who enables him to tread this dark path and then return to her. This all-consuming love is made explicit in one phone call, which is the romantic pinnacle of this film. Our culture usually talks about love in ecstatic, abstract metaphors. It’s easier to blow this exulted emotion up than to pin it down but, casually, amid all the dangerous hustle and bustle, Sexy Beast absolutely nails it.
Gal is back in London. It’s just before the job that he never wanted to do. He excuses himself from a table of brash laddy career criminals to pay a quick visit to a restaurant pay phone. He can’t be long. His love story holds other stories that must remain secret, but because he is a man in love, because DeeDee as the centre of his world, he must stay in touch, he must keep their storyline running and not let wrongdoing take over the narrative.
He says: “I love you like a rose loves rainwater… like a leopard loves its partner in the jungle… like I don’t know what like. I love you.” These words are a good amuse bouche before the kiss, which is yet to come. Spoken by a simpering romantic in an overwrought voice, they would be too syrupy, but spoken in Ray Winstone’s low, matter-of-fact monotone in a script whose language is dominated by “fuck” and “cunt”, it’s like the invention of poetry. DeeDee listens silently. The camera shows her alone in the dark. Winstone might as well be saying, ‘Don’t be fooled by the genre trappings, this film is about how love can steer you away from harm.’
The phone call isn’t over yet. DeeDee is still listening. Gal is still talking. He says: “I know that you love me because I feel strong.” It’s a practical statement. He’s laid aside fanciful imagery designed to melt his paramour into a romantic state of mind. “I know that you love me because I feel strong” is just personal narrative fact. There is no more simple or enduringly powerful way to describe how it feels to be loved by your beloved. To be held in the highest regard by someone you hold in the highest regard. It adds an invisible layer of something. Sexy Beast shows us what that something is.
DeeDee’s character is at once familiar and enigmatic. Amanda Redman and Ray Winstone have a chemistry that, for the most part, is unspoken. They show love by the support they instinctively provide for each other against the foul spectre of Don who represents the gangster world. Although, Gal is the centre of the storyline, when they are together, they appear as equals and when he has to briefly leave her, he (to paraphrase ee cummings) carries her heart.
Glazer doesn’t show us how Gal used to be in the bad old days, before he got sent to jail and came out and started a new life of luxury away from London criminal enterprises. We don’t know who Gal was before he was in love with DeeDee. All we know is that he wants to be a tranquil man now, and fuelling his resolve when circumstances become adverse is the loving connection that he has and that he feeds with admiring words.
He has protection from slipping permanently back into the way things were, he has strength, he has love. Love’s miracle come from its non-miraculous properties, from its real-world personal impact, from the way it gives a man the will to dive back into the swamp from which he came and then climb back out of it again, with diamonds to take back home.
Published 12 Feb 2016