Stuart's story is essentially a four-character play delineating the deterioration of an English family that has just relocated from London to the rural isolation of Devon, in southwest Great Britain. Just minutes into the film, the family survives a devastating accident that initially seems only to draw its members closer together and strengthen their bonds. But the family's 15-year-old son, moody and unpredictable even by adolescent standards, soon stumbles upon a secret that eventually reduces the fabric of family life to shreds.
I can't really say much more about the plot without blunting the impact of its series of increasingly shocking revelations. What's abundantly clear, however, is that Roth has an intuitive grasp of how to meld film style and content (at least with this sort of material; how he might handle, say, a romantic comedy is anyone's guess). Unlike so many actors who venture behind the camera, he's less interested in showing off than in advancing a narrative. Here he uses locations -- desolate country roads, an Albert Speer-inspired seaside bunker, the oppressively boxy house where much of the action takes place -- to reinforce the raw interactions among the characters. He makes the story as visually harsh and unforgiving as the landscape in which it takes place.
Not surprisingly for an actor of his talent, Roth also elicits uniformly fine work from a quartet of players largely unknown this side of the Atlantic. For the matriarch known only as Mum, who gives birth to the family's third child early in the movie, he's blessed with the fine-boned Tilda Swinton. Best known here for her ambitious performance in the title role of the muddled Virginia Woolf adaptation Orlando, Tilton provides one of the most natural, least romanticized renderings of pregnancy and early motherhood ever put on film. Ray Winstone, hailed for his work in another actor's directorial debut, Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth, easily matches her as Mum's deceptively easygoing husband. And for the pivotal roles of the story's 18-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son, Roth turned to newcomers Lara Belmont and Freddie Cunliffe, both of whom are excellent.
If there's a complaint to be leveled against this stark drama, it's that the dialogue is sometimes a little too Pinteresque for its own good, too full of pregnant pauses and portents. But in the context of a piece of filmmaking so strong, this is a minor flaw. (Saturday, November 13 [closing night], 5 and 7 p.m., Coral Ridge; 98 minutes)