When it comes to cinema, there are two things British actors are unquestionably the best at in the world.
The first is the debonair smirk, as perfected by Cary Grant, Michael Caine and every James Bond since Dr. No (even George Lazenby got that part right).
The second is the menacing threat, be it an eye-watering line or a devastating look (or both) – a British speciality that has shone through countless iconic roles from Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange to Ben Kinglsey in Sexy Beast to pretty much the entire cast of every good film Guy Richie ever made (OK: both of them).
It’s not the cartoon menace of horror movies or action flicks – we can leave that to our American cousins – it’s a different, more plausible strain of barely withheld violence, the menace of a man genuinely unsure what he might do next, menace that makes the hairs on your neck stand up at the same time as your testicles shrivel to nothing.
For my money this national gift found its perfect exponent in a criminally underrated film that turns 10 this month, Shane Meadow’s Dead Man’s Shoes.
Part horror, part psychological thriller, part family drama, it tells the story of Richard, a soldier in the British army who returns to his hometown in Derbyshire to find that a local gang has been bullying his mentally-impaired kid brother Anthony.
Richard, played by Meadows’ co-writer and frequent collaborator Paddy Considine, goes after this gaggle of small town hard men on his own, glaring at them across the floors of fusty Working Men’s Clubs, breaking into their homes in the middle of the night and getting them out of their mind on LSD before hacking them to pieces.
But aside from the grisly bits, it is the scenes in which Richard confronts his brother’s tormentors head on – seething with rage, at once unflappable and inarticulate – that have become YouTube hits, endlessly quoted by fans and cherished by the few people who bothered to see it at the cinema (“What you looking at mate?” “YOU YA CUNT!”).
Part of it is Considine’s uncanny gift for playing violent but sensitive young men (Morell, his character in Meadows’ earlier film A Room For Romeo Brass, is in some ways a younger version of Richard). The way his jaw tightens and his body trembles would be almost comic, if it wasn’t for the way small glimpses of panic and sorrow escape from his eyes. In this respect, Considine has something of a young De Niro about him (Richard even dresses a bit like Travis Bickle) and it’s a real surprise, 10 years later, he still hasn’t been offered a challenging lead role in Hollywood.
Another reason for the brilliance of those scenes is of course Meadows, whose gift for teasing out naturalistic performances from largely untrained, working class actors is his hallmark, evident in all his films (most famously This Is England), even this quasi-horror departure.
Meadows, like his forebears Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, understands how men in Britain talk to one another, that peculiar mix of crude resentment and clumsy affection. Part of what makes Richard genuinely unsettling is how anxious and unrehearsed his behaviour feels, how the smallest beat of English awkwardness lurks underneath even his angriest exchanges.
But it is also, I like to think, down to the fact Dead Man’s Shoes – in the wonderfully odd and idiosyncratic manner of The Wicker Man or Withnail & I – is a film that could only have been made by a British director and actor.
Maybe it has something to do with being a tiny island, pillaged for centuries by whichever roaming horde held the biggest spears, bruised from bloody business of acquiring and losing an empire, raised through modern decades defined by gangsters and football hooligans and Maggie Thatcher cracking her whip, but our ear for the menacing threat, for deadly plausible violence, is as finally tuned as a Royal Albert Hall piano.
Like the debonair smirk it is our cinematic trademark, and while it finds its way into films as brilliant as Dead Man’s Shoes, long may that continue.