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by Jay Seaver

"A tricky crime with plenty of Leeds."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2013 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON: What, exactly, is the difference between a crime movie and a caper movie? Scale? The intricacy of the plan? Do the characters being a notch more charming or less working-class change the classification? Or is this just a distinction that vanishingly few people care about? Rowan Athale's "Wasteland", you see, is right on the border, centering on the one big score but still getting kind of dirty on the way.

There's a saying that prison gives petty crooks a chance to learn the skills to become career felons, and that may be the case with Harvey (Luke Treadaway), emerging after a year behind bars with a potential business opportunity in Amsterdam and a plan to raise the stake that involves robbing the man who set him up, local gangster Steven Roper (Neil Maskell). He brings in three friends - best mate Dempsey (Iwan Rheon), tradesman Charlie (Gerard Kearns), and hot-headed Dodd (Matthew Lewis) - but while he's learned a thing or two inside, most of them aren't even small time, and maybe not completely sold on packing up and leaving Leeds, let alone England, behind. It may not matter, since a well-bloodied Harvey is explaining everything to a CID detective-inspector (Timothy Spall).

Athale's story is firmly in film noir territory, though it lacks a classic femme fatale (Vanessa Kirby's Nicola is an ex-girlfriend who wants Harvey on the straight and narrow). It's a distinctively English one, though, with regional accents that it might take Americans a few minutes to get used to and a setting that still feels industrial even if industry has by and large been gone for a while. There are areas on Harvey's plans that are actually marked "wasteland" but the empty pubs and industrial spaces where the friends meet tell the story of the place as well as anything. It's not completely barren yet, but it might be on its way.

It's not quite there yet, though, so there's room for the characters to be something other than angry young me. Harvey comes the closest; though we only get glimpses of him from before his time in prison, it's clear that he's been changed. Treadaway gives him a hidden intensity that is never too far behind his attempts to be cheerful around Nicola or treat the crime he's planning like it's no big deal around his friends; it's only when he's paired with Roper or West that a more purely determined version appears. Iwan Rheon, meanwhile, provides good comic relief as the best friend who serves as an anchor, while Gerard Kearns and Matthew Lewis give a little more life than one might expect to guys who sympathize but are keenly aware of that this is Harvey's story, and what about theirs?

The others outside the core four are pretty good, too. Timothy Spall is in the middle of a nice run where he makes every movie he's in better (well, he always is, but it's been more obvious in the last year or so), doing as an actor what his character is meant to do in the interrogation room, bringing a little more out of Treadaway and trying to convince everyone they're on the same side. Vanessa Kirby plays Nicola as sensible but not having any particular airs - she loves Harvey but is far from just that trait, and while she's quite good-looking she feels like she belongs in his world. Neil Maskell, meanwhile, is kind of the perfect villain for this piece: He's nasty and threatening but not larger than life, the very definition of a big fish in a small pond, although he seems dangerous enough to the audience while it's in that pond.

While a great deal of the movie is spent on observing these characters as they re-introduce themselves and then prepare for the heist, the operation itself is a good one. Athale follows the classic structure of this genre while appearing mostly aware of how sophisticated the audience has become by now: He shows enough of the lay of the land that the audience feels like they can follow along when it's go-time, holds enough back so that he can throw in a reversal or two in the last act, and uses the interrogation wrapper to sort of tacitly acknowledge to the folks who have seen a great many of these movies that he's holding things back. It's not the world's greatest use of the form - the pieces fit together but you can still see the seams when the puzzle is assembled - but it's a pretty capable one.

As capers go, it's not exactly the sort that jauntily stays a step or two ahead of the audience and beckons us to keep up, and most crime pictures are a couple notches more cynical than this story. But as a movie that splits the difference between, it's what you might call a solid working-class diversion.

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originally posted: 05/01/13 13:36:21
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 European Union Film Festival For more in the 16th Annual European Union Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.

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Directed by
  Rowan Athale

Written by
  Rowan Athale

  Luke Treadaway
  Timothy Spall
  Iwan Rheon
  Matthew Lewis
  Neil Maskell
  Vanessa Kirby

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