44 Inch Chest (Image Entertainment), written by the team responsible for the Ben Kingsley heist picture Sexy Beast and directed by first-timer Malcolm Venville, starts off promisingly. The killer title sequence shows Ray Winstone, as the small-time hood Colin Diamond, lying immobile in a trashed apartment as we hear Harry Nilsson belt the masochistic power ballad “Without You.” Winstone’s eyes are open and glazed, his face expressionless, and for nearly a minute we think we must be looking at a dead body. Then he blinks, and what looked like the aftermath of a murder suddenly becomes the scene of a different kind of crime: Colin’s wife of 21 years, Liz (Joanne Whalley), has left him for someone else, and the music on the soundtrack is the record he’s put on to wallow in his pain.
For its first hour, 44 Inch Chest plunges forward with some of Sexy Beast’s vulgar snap and sass. The rapid, contrapuntal, expletive-packed dialogue provides more than its share of ping-ponging satisfaction, especially as spoken by a roomful of British actors with gangster cred to burn: Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Dillane, and Ian McShane. The problem is, a roomful of really good actors saying clever lines is all 44 Inch Chest ever adds up to. The story, in which Colin and four of his tough-guy buddies kidnap and torture the young French waiter who’s having an affair with Colin’s wife, is all moody buildup and no—I mean no—real suspense. The script might have worked better onstage, with its one-room setting and monologic style. But even in the theater, claustrophobic tension is sustainable only when there’s a good story bubbling underneath. The only real question for this movie’s 94-minute running time—whether or not the silent, trussed-up foreigner tied to a chair in the middle of the room is about to be summarily executed—is a little too reminiscent of a real-life torture scenario to provide legitimate dramatic interest.
The movie’s centerpiece is a long and wonderfully acted monologue by Winstone that’s a paean to uxoriousness. After asking his fellow thugs to leave the room, he lectures the young man—known only as “Loverboy”—on the quiet joys of being a good husband: making the tea, plumping the pillows, fixing the leaky faucet (“Maybe she don’t notice, but it don’t matter. Because it’s fixed, it’s plumbed.”) Of course, the sweetness of this domestic encomium is undercut by the fact we know Colin found out his wife’s lover’s name by beating it out of her. 44 Inch Chest aspires to be a Pinter-esque deconstruction of gynophobia and homosocial rage, but more often, it’s simply a direct expression of those anxieties. The film’s title is never directly explained—it could equally easily suggest the measurements of a bulked-up man or an impossibly voluptuous woman.
Though it’s full of jarring tonal shifts (and heavily overscored by frequent David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti), 44 Inch Chest is never dull. The actors see to that, tearing into their slangy, profane dialogue as if it were a hearty plate of bangers and mash. You haven’t lived till you’ve heard Stephen Dillane use the c-word as a participial adjective, or Ian McShane’s character, a gay dandy in all-black clothes with a soul to match, describe Burt Lancaster as “scrumptious.” McShane’s menacing comic deadpan steals every scene he’s in, and when you’re acting opposite the likes of John Hurt, Ray Winstone, and Tom Wilkinson, that’s not nothing. Ultimately, though, even the company of these brilliant actors can’t compensate for the limp, shapeless plot. With nowhere to go dramatically, the last third dissolves into a haze of flashbacks and fantasy sequences, always returning to the dark, cramped room where the cuckold and his victim form a strange kind of bond. I won’t reveal whether the kidnapped Frenchman makes it out of that room alive. But I can tell you I was more than ready to make my own escape.