The film covers a brief period in the life of a working-class English family: Mum (Tilda Swinton), Dad (Ray Winstone), their 18-year-old daughter, Jessie (Lara Belmont), and 15-year-old Tom (Freddie Cunliffe). They have recently moved from London to an isolated cottage on the Dorset coast. Mum gives birth to a baby girl, Alice. Tom discovers that Dad is sexually abusing Jessie. When the baby is hospitalized with an unexplained injury, apparently genital, Tom tells Mum about the incest, and when Dad confronts him and denies it, Tom stabs him.


This harrowing and ultimately pessimistic film explores the effects of domestic sexual abuse on the family as a unit and on all the interrelationships within that unit. Jessie (as well, implicitly, as the infant Alice) is the obvious victim, and the complexity of her suffering is unflinchingly portrayed, but the subtler and more ambiguous effects of incest are shown too. The relationship between Mum and Dad is warm and profound, and both appear in many ways to be "good parents."

Tom, the family outsider, is the moral center of the film. Both sulky and affectionate, he is perhaps injured in the most complex way by what happens, since by exposing the secret he is forced to destroy the family he so desperately needs. Domestic abuse, we learn from him, sets a terrible loneliness at the center of the family.

All the characters, superbly written and performed, are interestingly inconsistent in the way that real people tend to be. Dad may be the source of evil, but he is not a conventional villain. Jessie, neither entirely victim nor collaborator, perfectly captures an excruciating ambivalence that arises from the warped power and desire fostered by sexual abuse.

This film would be a perfect text for exploring the issue at its center without melodrama or oversimplification. As a film, it is also astonishingly beautiful, for all its bleak sadness.


Based on the novel The War Zone by Alexander Stuart (London, 1989).

Primary Source

New Yorker Video