Tim Roth, ‘Captives’ and the British erotic thriller

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captives 1994 tim roth julia ormond angela pope erotic thriller
The three most-liked reviews of Captives on the film social network Letterboxd are pretty similar in their brazen horniness for Tim Roth.

“this was absolute garbage but i want tim roth to spit in my mouth” reads the first. “MY BODY IS LITERALLY A HOLE FOR TIM ROTH I WANT HIM TO CHOKE ME!” reads the second. “Watching tim roth suck on that finger singlehandedly cured my depression, cleansed me of my acne, watered my crops,” reads the third. Such is the beauty of this genre, in which films are rated on their ability to titillate. 

https://youtu.be/7-DfKbIWMXg

The beauty of watching an erotic thriller is that you never know if it’s going to be campy fun or abjectly terrible. They’re pretty much always a surprise. But you can still imagine my shock when one day I decided to put on Captives, a barely-seen British 90s thriller, to discover minutes in that it’s set in and around the very area I’ve lived in my whole life: humble ol’ Southgate, North London.

It’s depressing, yet unsurprising, that the only thing that seems to have changed about Southgate since 1996 is that Wimpy is gone (RIP). A suburban area in the London Borough of Enfield, watching Captives proved that many stalwarts of Southgate (including Southgate Kebab House, which has furnished me with many drunken lamb shish kebabs over the years) have been kicking for at least 14 years. Southgate Station, three stops from the end of the Piccadilly Line, is probably the only thing we have going for us – a Grade II* building designed in the Streamline Moderne-Art Deco style by Charles Holden in 1933. We’re most known for our high population of Greek Cypriots (raises hand sheepishly) and Amy Winehouse. Apparently, however, our uniquely UFO-esque station has been attractive to some filmmakers, namely one Angela Pope.

In Pope’s 1996 erotic thriller, Julia Ormond plays Rachel, a beautiful dentist who is in the process of divorcing her husband (Peter Capaldi (!)) who cheated on her. Emotionally vulnerable and feeling impulsive, she begins working two days a week treating inmates at a prison in London, where she is inexplicably drawn to Philip (Tim Roth) – an inmate with a shady past and dodgy tattoos. With Philip on day-release once a week to attend college (Southgate College, it soon becomes clear) an illicit affair ensues, featuring a lot of sizzling chemistry, clandestine shags in public toilets and kinky dentist-patient finger sucking. Of course, this is an erotic thriller, so at some point there is a shoot-out, and someone ends up dead.

But, back to those horny reviews. Just scrolling through them esteems this movie as the horniest movie of all time, which is quite a statement when Eyes Wide Shut exists. It’s also funny to me how all attention is on Tim Roth—who, in this film, is a 5ft 5 greasy criminal who literally murdered his ex-wife—and not on Julia Ormond.

In a discussion with Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth joked: “We don’t usually get offered the Romantic Lead because of the way we look. I mean, we’re not Brad Pitt […] I did one in England, where I played opposite Julia Ormond. It would have to be in England, they cast people like us over there.” Well, Tim, you certainly made an impression, if this fancam is anything to go by (just searching “captives tim roth horny” on Twitter is enough evidence too). Perhaps this film titillates because it’s actually somewhat pedestrian; in a film that could have easily been an ITV daytime movie, the two leads are engaging in a fairly innocuous kink (what made watching this a tad weird is that a real life dentist in Southgate, my ex-dentist in fact, was arrested for sexual assault). 

It’s interesting to watch this resolutely British erotic thriller and understand why the genre is a torrid petri dish in which only the American bacteria can truly, disgustingly thrive. Americans (not all, etc) are unabashed in their trashy, dirtbag-iness, particularly when it comes to this specific genre. The very posh and preened character of Rachel struggles to navigate this seedy atmosphere as a stuck-up Brit. In one agonizingly awkward scene, she flies into an abusive rage at a South Asian woman she finds in her house, believing it to be her husband’s mistress (who she previously referred to as “the tart in the sari”), only for it to actually be the estate agent. The “oh God, I’m sorry! Sorry!” which follows is the very (agonizingly British) antithesis to what a typical erotic thriller is: unapologetic. The film’s producer, David Thompson, said that “it’s fairly safe to say that the British are rather wary of strong, emotional films. They’re very cautious about high emotions and tend to go for films which are more emotionally buttoned-up.” Perhaps this is true, and perhaps that’s why the script comes across a tad stilted at times.

There’s not much by way of plot outside of Julia and Phillip’s (very believable, to be honest) chemistry. The main conflict arises when Philip’s fellow inmate cottons on to the affair and threatens to have Julia attacked if she doesn’t smuggle contraband into the prison for him. But there’s a lot of bad, weird microaggressions like the “tart in a sari” comment mentioned above; the main spanner in the duo’s steamy romance is the fact they’re being blackmailed by a Bad Black Drug Smuggler, who jumps, prowls and snarls around the frame like a cartoonish villain.

The film was fine until, somewhere along the line, a decision was made that there needed to be some sort of new crisis introduced, when this could have been a more interesting film had it stayed closely on the themes of passion and paranoia. Maybe then it wouldn’t have been an erotic thriller, though. And I wouldn’t be writing about it.

Words by Steph Green

Part of Dead Sexy: A Fortnightly Column on Erotic Thrillers

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