Wasteland, directed by Rowan Athale and just released by Oscilloscope Laboratories, offers a millennial revision of the 1960’s Angry Young Man films, a term coined to describe a crop of British playwrights and novelist’s in the 50’s and 60’s whose work concerned the disillusionment of young working class men in the north of England, (the “It’s grim up north,” genre) often overlapping in style and content with British New Wave and the Free Cinema Movement. Of that genre, Wasteland pays special visual homage to This Sporting Life, Lindsay Anderson’s first feature film.
Wasteland follows an aimless Harvey Miller (Luke Treadaway, very much resembling a young Stephen Frears) just released from prison after serving a year on false charges and happy to be reunited with his three best mates. The action takes place in Leeds, a city in England’s industrial north.
Director: Rowan Athale
Producers: Ed Barratt, Mark Foligno, Gareth Pritchard
Writers: Rowan Athale
Cinematographer: Stuart Bentley
Editors: Kim Gaster
Music: Neil Athale
Cast: Matthew Lewis, Vanessa Kirby, Iwan Rheon, Timothy Spall, Luke Treadaway, Neil Maskell
Premiere: September 7, 2012 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: July 26, 2013
US Distributor: Oscilloscope Pictures
Short on prospects, Harvey brings his friends in on a caper cooked up behind bars. Chiefly, robbing the local drug kingpin to raise capital for a share in an Amsterdam Coffee House. The silly modesty of the plot echoes great caper films of the past like Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket (1996). And while Wasteland falls short of that film, it does have at least one satisfying planning montage, complete with maps and schemata.
The film has a soft touch and the palette of grays, reds, and blues draws the viewer in.
Wasteland’s structure, a flashback with a captured Harvey confessing the details of the heist to a police detective (the excellent and unsinkable Timothy Spall), feels extremely traditional. The very theme of a group of disillusioned young Englishmen has nostalgia to it, but the structure is the same you’d find in traditional noirs all the way back to Double Indemnity. That one of the gang is mocked for his hesitancy to consider even leaving Leeds, preferring rather to wait on the possibility of a job as a factory welder, comes off as anachronistic.
The theme of entrapment in a soul crushing factory job, so resonant in great films of the past (2010’s highly underrated Cemetery Junction, Billy Elliot— and all the terrific Angry Young Man films of the 60s: Look Back in Anger, Saturday Night Sunday Morning) is largely subverted in Wasteland. Far from Max Weber’s Iron Cage, these men have absolutely no social mooring. In a savvy move, the only gang member with any apparent career prospects is Harvey’s best girl, a health care professional. Wasteland holds up the anxieties of working class people a full generation after any dignified work has dried up.
The film runs a little long, but the final scenes are well worth the wait. Matthew Lewis, of Neville Longbottom fame, takes a quiet turn in the movie, making him one of the first of the Harry Potter kids to make anything understated. The soundtrack is also solid, moving from EDM to 60s Hungarian bubblegum pop. Although far afield from their angry forefathers, these hopeless young men are charming in their modest caper.