Two recurring tropes for many directorial debuts from established actors are to, firstly, work within the constraints of a genre you may already be associated with, and, secondly, enlist a few of your famous thespian friends to work for you. A screen presence since his debut in 1976’s Bugsy Malone, Dexter Fletcher has perhaps been best known during the last fourteen years for his work in the films of Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn, directors that have moved on to American blockbuster fare but are still closely associated with the revival of the British gangster film. Involving East End London crime, Fletcher’s directorial debut Wild Bill certainly resembles Ritchie, in particular, on a superficial level; in regards to featuring famous faces, he has even enlisted Lock Stock co-star Jason Flemyng, alongside the likes of Olivia Williams, Andy Serkis, Sean Pertwee and Jaime Winstone. Wild Bill is, most pleasantly, a subversion of any expectations one may bring to it. Those cited performers are relegated to small roles, the star of the film being character actor Charlie Creed-Miles, and its Cockney crime genre characteristics are actually background dressing for an engaging family drama in possession of a sweet sentiment amidst its grim trappings.
Shaken by an eight year prison sentence, the formerly violent “Wild” Bill Hayward (Miles) returns home to find that the mother of his two children has abandoned them to be with another man in Spain. The resentful teen son Dean convinces his father to temporarily stay in the family’s East London flat to prevent the boys being taken into care. Bill resists returning to a path of crime, but old associates are made uncomfortable by his continued presence in the area, and younger son Jimmy becomes involved with their operations. Starting to embrace his responsibilities, Bill’s transformation resembles the archetypal cone-gone-straight drama, with polished execution setting it apart. There’s grit without gloom, and a lack of sentimentality despite its soft-hearted leanings. Additionally refreshing is the film’s lack of any glamorisation regarding its criminals, and a very witty script prone to a delightful brand of sarcasm. A socio-political subtext in its setting also distinguishes it: Dean has taken a job at the Olympic construction site to provide for his younger brother, and their high-rise flat overlooks the glistening new Olympic Park. Despite the constant buzz of modernity and reshaping, the lives of everyone Bill knows remain un-regenerated; Bill’s dilemma is that the old definitely isn’t going anywhere.
Perhaps unsurprising considering his long history in front of the camera, Fletcher gets excellent performances from his cast. Creed-Miles relishes the opportunity of a leading role, eliciting unassuming warmth and melancholy from the difficult task of portraying an equally tough but tender character. Sammy Williams, one of Attack the Block’s younger actors, is impressive as young Jimmy, and, as Dean, child star Will Poulter (Son of Rambow, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) graduates to teen roles with fierce aplomb. Some of the more cliché characters are even given some weight thanks to the performers, like Liz White as a stock concerned prostitute involved with Bill’s former friends. The film’s steady but never sluggish pace certainly helps the delivery of the characters, allowing them room to breathe and develop, and for gradual, believable change.
Wild Bill’s title hints at western influences and, much like Paddy Considine’s recent Tyrannosaur, there is some staging reminiscent of that genre transplanted to not so sweeping surroundings. The cinematography is, perhaps unexpectedly, one of the film’s biggest strengths, presenting much lyricism in its impressive steadicam work; a graceful sequence involving a paper aeroplane launched from a high-rise flat window is a particular highlight of unexpected beauty. Wild Bill is a film of recognisable elements with noteworthy execution on technical, writing and acting fronts, allowing for much potency despite its occasional lapses into over-familiar narrative turns; a most impressive directorial debut.