First published by Little White Lies
“Built for affordable living after the Second World War” (as the text at the film’s beginning informs us), tower blocks were once “popular places to live” but, neglected, became “a breeding ground for crime and violence”, now targeted for redevelopment. Indeed, these urban islands might be regarded as a microcosm of island Britain, and of the nation’s shift from post-war socialist principles to harsher individualist policies, with subsequent reforms squeezing out society’s least protected sectors. So, much like Paul Donovan and Maura O’Connell’s Self Defense aka Siege (1983), Tower Block is a tense siege thriller that uses its genre trappings to expose a blighted, beleaguered underclass of the here and now.
The top-floor residents of Serenity House are isolated even within their own tower block – the last hold-outs against their building’s demolition, and virtual prisoners in their separate apartments from an environment of aggression and intimidation. When a terrified 15-year-old boy is beaten to death at their doorsteps, all – apart from Becky (Sheridan Smith) – ignored his pleas for help, and even she refused subsequently to talk to the police about what happened (“I never saw anything,” she insists). Three months later, a mystery sniper from the opposite building starts taking the residents out one by one, and as they face bullets from without, booby traps within, and their own marginalisation from an oblivious world, a new-found spirit of community, forced upon them by circumstance, might just also be their saving grace.
A thuggish extortioner (Jack O’Connell), an alcoholic (Russell Tovey), an aging couple under siege (Ralph Brown, Jill Baker), a mouthy single mother (Montserrat Lombard), a first-person-shooter obsessed teen (Harry McEntire) and his indignant mum (Julie Graham), a pair of on-the-make drugdealers (Nabil Elouahabi, Kane Robinson) – these characters are defined by all their irresponsibility and insularity, but also redefined by their potential to get on together and rebuild whatever might survive the fire. Debut directors James Nunn and Ronnie Thompson know when to show – and when to cut away from – all the high-impact corporal devastation, with their DP Ben Moulden using an inventive array of camera angles and movements to get the most from the film’s claustrophobic locations. Look carefully, and you can glimpse in the background of one scene a poster for Cockneys Vs Zombies – also penned by James Moran, also set in an East End undergoing transition, and also marrying its genre trappings to a genuine social engagement. Tower Block, however, is eventually undone by its own gravity, coming back down to ground level with a decidedly tepid ending.
© Anton Bitel