Film Review: Wasteland

Derivative British buddy caper distinguishes itself by offering diverting characters in a realistic setting, a dreary Northern town that, ironically, makes a refreshing change from slick London.

The chief incentive for Americans to see this entertaining if over-plotted British heist movie in a theatre is sound: The characters’ Northern dialect is so thick and singsong, it’s nearly impossible to follow—unless, of course, you’re from Yorkshire—so the better the audio, the easier to grasp the banter. This is no small consideration, since Wasteland, the directorial debut of Rowan Athale, is character-driven, at least through its first 45 minutes before the complicated robbery at the center of the film pushes aside all other matters.

Athale, who also wrote the screenplay, tells the story in flashback, as protagonist Harvey Miller (Luke Treadaway) sits bleeding in a police interrogation room. He’s being interviewed by D.I. West (Timothy Spall) concerning the hold-up of the local working-men’s club (a combination union and social hall that’s typical of the film’s local flavor) and the beating of resident drug dealer Steven Roper (Neil Maskell). We will hear the story twice, one of the movie’s narrative feints, but here’s the condensed version.

Just released from prison, Harvey recruits his best mates (Iwan Rheon, Matthew Lewis and Gerard Kearns) to help him rip off Roper, who sent him to the gaol by planting heroin in his apartment and then tipping off the cops. The motive is more revenge than greed, since the cashbox in question contains only £60,000, money the boys plan to invest in a coffee shop in Amsterdam. Nevertheless, Roper’s a bit of a nutter, so they dare not screw up the heist, which involves breaking into a safe in the windowless subbasement of the well-secured club. Harvey, of course, has a foolproof plan…

Athale tacks on every twist and turn this premise can support, including a love interest (Vanessa Kirby) for Harvey, a blueprint for burglary requiring crossbow, scuba gear and synchronized watches, and several imaginative misdirections and riffs, including one on the theme of trust and loyalty (which is what the movie is about, if you need a takeaway). To his credit, Athale keeps us engaged as the scheme grows more and more improbable, and he makes the most of a modest budget. Wasteland convincingly recreates the life and landscapes of a decaying industrial town, and does so with unpretentious winks and nods to the movie’s many precursors.

Both Threadaway, who channels a young Guy Pearce, and Kirby are appealing presences. Iwan Rheon stands out with his glib patter (often indecipherable but always melodious) and Teddy Boy looks. Spall, easily the most recognizable actor among the cast, fits effortlessly into the birds ’n’ blokes ensemble. It’s all good for having a laugh, for Wasteland, despite its ponderous title, gives us a likeable bunch of rascals we can root for, increasingly rare in the genre, and who bring just enough affability to the proceedings to ground the filmmaker’s ever-so-ambitious flights of fancy.