Writer Trevor Preston and director Mike Hodges apparently believe that they’re doing something radical in this gritty, slow-moving film about the seamy underside of life in London, but “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” is actually oddly old-fashioned and dull. The picture is essentially a revenge tale about a once-powerful crime figure returning from exile to investigate the death of his younger brother–the same basic plotline Hodges explored to far better effect in “Get Carter” years ago. But it adds to the mix the twist that the younger man committed suicide after being raped. This leads to an excursus on the fact that rape is a crime of power, not of passion–the sort of explanation which, though true, we’ve heard many times over in television and cable movies. The fact that the rape in this case involves two men, rather than the more usual combination, doesn’t make the narrative much more shocking, and it certainly doesn’t make it revolutionary.
The protagonist is Will Graham (Clive Owen), who abandoned a career as a mover-and-shaker in the London underworld some years earlier, leaving behind his brother Davey (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) to make do for himself, which he attempts by playing a small part in the drug trade among the swells while living, insofar as his means allow, the life of a callow playboy. It takes a considerable time before Will, who’s lost himself in the hinterlands working as a logger, learns of Davey’s death from their mutual friend Mickser (Jamie Foreman). Having returned to the city, he sets out to discover why Davey killed himself and, once a second autopsy is conducted, to identify the man whose rape of the young man led to his self-destructive action. There’s no suspense for the audience in the search: the film has already shown that the perpetrator was Boad (Malcolm McDowell), a snarling bully whom we later learn to be a car dealer with apparently dark connections. But there is uncertainty about the motive, which an unforgiving Will eventually compels Boad to confess. Unfortunately, when the explanation comes, it proves more noise than enlightenment.
That’s unfortunately characteristic of the film, which emphasizes mood over content yet doesn’t even manage to make the atmosphere compelling. The picture is both deliberate and deliberately opaque, leaving the characters to wander about in what’s apparently intended to be a morass of existential angst but instead comes across as narrative confusion. Owen’s blankness arises from this–with a thick beard through most of the running-time, he’s even less expressive than in his previous star turns–but he’s still fortunate beside the other actors, who don’t have even his fraternal connection to lean on. Foreman, for instance, is admirably scuzzy, and veteran Sylvia Syms nicely dotty as Davey’s landlady, but their precise places in the web of personalities is never made clear (is she his mother?) Charlotte Rampling shows up as a restaurant owner who was apparently Will’s erstwhile lover (or wife?), but she’s given nothing to do except look austere and well-coiffed, which she does to little avail. Also rambling around the fringes of the action are Ken Stott as the neighborhood crime boss and a trio of former Graham associates–Geoff Bell, Desmond Baylis and Kirris Riviere–but they’re not required to do much beyond looking tough. Still, all of them come off better than McDowell, who’s forced into virtual self-caricature as the brutal Boad. Only Rhys Meyers makes a positive impression, and then only in comparison to the others. Mike Garfath’s dark, dank cinematography successfully complements Hodge’s grim approach, but whether that’s a positive attribute is debatable.
Hodges and Owens teamed up a couple of years ago for “Croupier,” an equally deliberate but more enigmatic piece that scored a surprising success on this side of the Atlantic. They needn’t expect a repeat with this gloomy, peculiarly uninteresting little misfire.