Opening on an idyllic picture of the English countryside, The Owners pulls no punches when it comes to its depiction of Britain in the 1990s. Rolling hillsides and a beautiful country house are immediately contrasted with three grotty young men in a banged-up car, smoking, freestyle-rapping and plotting to rob a wealthy doctor. Everything from the shell suits to the slang screams ‘90s England.
Nathan (Ian Kenny), Terry (Andrew Ellis) and Gaz (Jake Curran) are staking out the house when Nathan’s girlfriend Mary (Maisie Williams) appears and demands her car back. The couple bicker until they notice Dr Richard Huggins (Sylvester McCoy) and his wife Ellen (Rita Tushingham) leaving their home. Distracted, the lads leave Mary alone in the car and break into the house, promising they’ll be quick and she won’t be too late for work.
The characterisation in these early scenes shows you exactly what to expect from each player going forward. Gaz is the criminal mastermind behind the whole scheme, generally disrespectful and with few qualms about violence or vandalism. Nathan wants a better life but, with no discernable goals or talents, would rather suck up to brutes like Gaz for the chance of a quick win, even if that means adopting some of his scummy attitudes. Terry is too trusting for his own good, but likes having friends like Nathan enough to go along with the occasional Gaz. Mary, despite wanting an easy, honest life, loves her deadbeat boyfriend enough to tolerate him even when he completely disregards her very reasonable objections.
The lads rampage through the house, collecting cash and jewellery and, in Gaz’s case, wantonly destroying things, until it is dark out. The pacing at this point is confusing. Mary complains to Nathan that she is late for work at night time, despite having said she was already half an hour late when it was broad daylight. Despite this, she gets coaxed inside the house and for some reason believes it will take only another five minutes.
By this time, the boys have discovered a safe. Unsatisfied with the valuables in the house and with no equipment to break into it, they decide to wait for the couple to return to scare them into opening it for them. The couple are tied up and threatened.
This makes for some tense scenes, largely centred on the internal conflict of Nathan, Terry and Mary. Gaz’s threats become more and more intimidating as he demands that Richard opens the safe for him. Meanwhile, Richard attempts to manipulate the more soft-hearted members of the group into letting him and his wife go.
Dr Huggins’s devotion to his wife starts out cute but quickly snowballs into sickening and later still sinister. McCoy plays it excellently, taking each logical step easily from sweet old gentleman to cunning monster.
The tension eventually escalates to violence. The fighting between Nathan and Gaz takes the form of a realistic scuffle, rather than an overly choreographed sequence. The doctor and his wife are freed – only for the tables to turn on the burglars.
We learn that the elderly couple are not the harmless pillars of the community that they appear, and in fact may have a murky connection to some missing girls in the area. As the couple wreak their bloody revenge on the intruders, old secrets are uncovered and the past refuses to stay buried.
The juxtaposition between the desperate lads and the decadent elderly couple in the opening scene set The Owners up to be a brilliant vehicle for exploring class struggles in the UK. All the foundations were set to examine the way that young men with no hope can be so easily manipulated into committing crime for the sake of a quick path to a better future. By contrasting this with the lavish home of the elderly couple, who go on to torture their would-be burglars for sheer vindictive pleasure, the film could have made a poignant statement on the way the privileged class treat their perceived societal lessers.
However, this metaphor is lost to a more convoluted backstory about illness, drugging and kidnapping. The tragic and bleak backstory of the couple could have been fleshed out better. As it is, their motivations and history are unclear and difficult to follow. Additional plot elements, such as Ellen’s dementia, rather than fleshing out her character and the couple’s dynamic, only serve to muddy the waters still further.
Frustratingly, the film often throws up loose ends that it leaves unresolved. It hints at complex motivations and remorse that the sadistic couple feel about their actions, but fails to really explore these, leaving them feeling like one-dimensional villains. With such phenomenal talent in McCoy and Tushingham, it’s something of a shame that they aren’t given more to work with.
Throughout, The Owners lays solid foundations for lots of ideas that were never fully realised or carried through to their full potential. Revelations later in the film, such as a surprise pregnancy for Mary, similarly seem to serve little purpose in the wider plot.
If you don’t overthink it, though, you can enjoy The Owners. It offers a satisfying glimpse into a quiet village community and the sinister secrets roiling beneath the surface and is a cleverly cast film. The practical effects are very well executed, and are just realistic enough to make you squirm without going over the top on the gore. The sound design, by Ben Baird, is particularly striking. It’s a distorted soundscape of unsettling drones and squeals, perfect for putting the audience on edge.
A third act shift in aspect ratio, however, is a bit more off-putting. It’s a creative choice that is more likely to alienate its audience than to get them to engage with the brutality on screen.
The film overall has great production quality that just isn’t met by the ambitions of the story.