Hannah doesn’t have much, but she does have wine. And vodka, and gin. Wrought by daily horrors, her decision to drink seems utterly rational, and drink she does. Her tipples are of the solitary kind: desperate sips in a nightclub otherwise reserved for revellers; too-large glasses in the early evening, the ones others have as they curl up on cosy sofas with friends or family…

Tyrannosaur is Paddy Considine’s first film as a director, and he paints a devastating picture of cycles of violence and pain. The stillness and malevolence he had brought to the screen as an actor in films like Dead Man’s Shoes and A Room For Romeo Brass is mirrored in his directorial debut. This is gritty realism of the harshest kind, refusing to shy away from the dark side of family life and showing some wrenchingly tragic scenes of domestic abuse and other violence.

Film can’t hope to reflect life exactly, but should try to explore its themes and contradictions in a way that isn’t trite or offensive. When we first meet Hannah, a Christian who works in a charity shop, her budding friendship with Joseph, a man who wears his rage on his sleeve, seems like a generous gesture on her behalf. Soon we discover that Hannah is in need of help as much as Joseph. Her scars soon become more obvious than his, worn on her face, in the demonstration of her fear and desperation.

The role of Hannah is delivered in a heartbreakingly mesmerising performance by Olivia Colman, who we are used to seeing in light-hearted comedy roles in Peepshow and Green Wing. The friendship she embarks on with Joseph, played with equal mastery by veteran realist Peter Mullan, is in parts touching and reflective of the profound psychological damage of both characters.

Most of the men in Tyrannosaur have a history of violence: they are drunks and layabouts and have broken all the things dear to them. Because of this, the film has been accused of misandry, but I think that to say so is to misunderstand the despair inherent in both the interior and exterior worlds of the characters. The inclusion of these men suggests that Considine sees excesses of masculinity as galvanising terrible patterns of suffering.

The charge of misandry also misses the non-essentialist message of the film – that all of us contain the capacity for both great violence and compassion. Similarly to Ken Loach or Winter’s Bone‘s director Debra Granik, Considine avoids placing the blame, merely showing us what can occur in universes of rage, loss and despair.

The complexity of humans and the need to move beyond easy binaries of good and evil permeate the film

He also asks heavy questions of us as we subsequently recoil from and empathise with Joseph. As the shocking denouement is approaching, we have to decide whether we can extend the understanding and compassion we grant Hannah – whose violent actions can be seen as the result of brutal events that have unfolded in her life – to the other characters in the film.

Can we offer empathy to the monstrous James (Eddie Marsan), Hannah’s husband? How useful is forgiveness and empathy to the victim of domestic abuse? How do we square our warmer feelings towards Joseph, who at times looks out for Hannah and a neglected child in the neighbourhood, with his chequered past?

Sometimes it’s hard, witnessing the violence perpetrated by men in film, on the news or in person, not to fall into the essentialist (misandrist) trap yourself. In Tyrannosaur, it is difficult not to feel disgust at James’ actions seeing them as somehow part of his maleness – even if we believe that this is conditioned and not innate. Ultimately, it is the complexity of humans, and the need to move beyond easy binaries of good and evil, that permeates the film. Considine isn’t telling us what to think, but the logic of his film demands that we engage with fundamental questions.

Interestingly, it is when both main characters veer off their typical behaviour patterns – as Hannah embarks on a path of violence and Joseph tries to turn his life around – that terrible acts occur. Considine isn’t necessarily suggesting that these acts could have been avoided had the characters followed their ‘true’ nature or that there is one sensible road to take.

You don’t have to be a Christian to ask how far your personal capacity for empathy goes

Instead he seems to be saying: there is no path. There are no easy answers, no empirical measures when it comes to goodness or rightness. It’s brave, and disconcerting, for cinema to remind us that people don’t always get what they seem to deserve. To remind us how much there is still to be done for women who are suffering like Hannah and to make sure that, unlike her, they have a place to turn to.

As Joseph crouches in Hannah’s shop, hiding from his own rage, she prays for him. He sobs. Her lack of judgement seems astonishing to him, and to us. You don’t have to be a Christian like Hannah to ask how far your personal capacity for empathy goes, how far the chance of redemption can stretch.

Only truly great cinema can make us grapple with such serious questions and Considine has created something masterful here. For the beautiful Hannah, we hope desperately for something better. It may not come. But that life can still offer some beauty and friendship is conveyed with astonishing skill in this stunning film.

Chloe is 29 and works for a charity as an online editor/social media coordinator. She lives in Hackney, east London and blogs as Woman on the edge of time