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D: Adam Smith / 99m

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson, Lyndsey Marshal, Georgie Smith, Rory Kinnear, Killian Scott, Sean Harris, Gerard Kearns, Tony Way, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Barry Keoghan, Kacie Anderson, Peter Wight, Alan Williams, Anna Calder-Marshall, Mark Lewis Jones

Chad Cutler (Fassbender) is part of a Travellers community whose patriarch is his father, Colby (Gleeson). Chad doesn’t know how to read or write, but he does know how to drive a car, especially if that car is being pursued by the police and it needs not to be caught. He’s also married, to Kelly (Marshal), and has two children, Tyson (Smith) and Mini (Anderson). Kelly wants more for their children than living in a caravan in a field, and though they go to a local school, it’s the only aspect of “normal” life they’re familiar with. Kelly wants them to move into a proper home – a house – and Chad is in agreement with her: he doesn’t want his children growing up in the same environment he did, and settling for less. But there’s a problem. If Colby finds out what they’re planning, he’ll never agree to it, and he’ll make sure they don’t leave.

While Chad sources a home for them nearby, Colby insists on his involvement in the robbery of a large house that proves to be the home of the Lord Lieutenant for the county. Though the robbery is successful, and Chad evades capture by the police – led by PC Lovage (Kinnear) – he’s not “out of the woods” just yet. Lovage is determined to arrest Chad, but if he can’t do it by fair means then he’ll twist the rules to suit his own agenda. This involves raiding the Travellers’ camp, and intimidating them as well as Chad and Kelly. When Chad learns that his father has intimidated the owner of the home he and his family were going to move into, and it’s no longer on offer, a showdown looms between Chad and Colby, one that Colby wins.

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In the meantime, Tyson and Mini go missing from the school. Chad searches for them, but it’s not until Kelly goes to the police that anyone knows the children are with them, and not actually missing or lost. Lovage tries to use their presence at the station as leverage in getting Chad or Kelly to admit his involvement in the robbery, but it doesn’t work. It’s not until Chad, attempting to buy a puppy as a birthday present for Tyson, is refused due to who he is that circumstances conspire to fix the issue of his family’s future once and for all.

Stories about the Travelling community are relatively thin on the ground, which makes Trespass Against Us all the more welcome. Highlighting the darker side of a life that most people will only know about from TV reality shows such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Adam Smith’s directorial debut is keen to show how hierarchy and loyalty play very important roles in the lives of Travellers, and how aspirations, no matter how much they may be needed, go against the established order of things. Whether or not Chad is a typical example of a “new generation” that sees the traditions of the Travelling community as old-fashioned or no longer socially relevant, isn’t addressed directly by Smith and screenwriter Alistair Siddons, but it certainly fuels the story of Chad’s “defection”.

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Played with grit and determination by an on-form Fassbender, Chad is aware of his limitations and the possibilities available to his children, but he’s fighting a losing battle against his father. Colby asserts an unhealthy authority over his grandchildren, and at times is far more of an authority figure to them than Chad is. He tells Tyson to ignore what his teacher tells him at school, and looks to reinforce the sense of being part of a tight-knit community that keeps its own counsel (or particularly, Colby’s). Chad has no immediate answer to his father’s belligerence, and is too scared to challenge him openly. Chad and Kelly may want better lives for their children, but Colby doesn’t even see it as an issue; he believes the life they all lead is the right one for them, and any other opinion is a betrayal. As Colby, Gleeson delivers the kind of intense, brooding performance he’s so good at, and he shows Colby’s anger at being challenged in a way that mixes resigned authority and the enjoyment he derives from being a bully.

But while the family dynamic, and the battle, between Chad and Colby forms the central storyline, other aspects of the script lack the same intensity or fail to engage the audience as effectively. Kinnear has the thankless task of making PC Lovage anything more than a pasty-faced thug in a police uniform, his determination to arrest Chad made into an obsession that causes him to behave in ways that steer away from credibility at every turn. Likewise, Harris is back playing the kind of role that casting directors seem eager to offer him. Gordon Bennett – yes, really – sports a close-cropped scalp and rat’s-tail extensions, and looks as if he hasn’t had a bath in weeks. He’s the community halfwit, protected by Colby, derided by Chad and the others, and capable of acts of unwitting cruelty. Harris is a very good actor, but Gordon as written adds little to the narrative, and the script uses him on occasion to move things along, but he’s often a distracting presence, and an unnecessary one at that.

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The twin themes of community and tradition are given enough space and time to be explored with a fair degree of depth, and though in truth, this is a story that could have been applied to any number of other, different family units, Smith and Siddons do their best to show how relevant these themes are in Traveller life. The austerity of tradition is touched on to good effect, but the reasoning behind continuing such traditions isn’t explored at all, leaving the viewer to wonder just why living in a field – no matter how much it keeps society away from the Travellers in general – is so preferable to the alternative. It’s an exclusionist stance that needed referencing, if only to provide viewers with a broader perspective.

As a drama, Trespass Against Us sometimes feels forced, as events drift into melodrama and Chad’s dream of emancipation from his father drifts further and further away. By the end, and the unlikely convergence of people and circumstance that provides Chad with a solution, some viewers may well be experiencing a kind of emotional ennui. There’s no payoff, or distinct resolution to Chad’s plight, only a hope that the decision he makes will have the required effect, and allow Kelly and the children to escape Colby’s clutches. But it’s a puzzling conclusion to a story that starts off well, includes a couple of impressively mounted car chases, but which soon loses dramatic focus and traction, and in doing so, looks and feels as if it’s lost sight of that very same story it started off with.

Rating: 7/10 – a mixed bag in terms of drama and the overall material, Trespass Against Us never quite scales the heights of its own ambitions, but it does feature two commanding performances from Fassbender and Gleeson, and a refreshing mise-en-scéne; let down by its own inconsistencies, it’s nevertheless a movie that shouldn’t be avoided, and which may in time, find itself ripe for reassessment.

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