'Urban Hymn': TIFF Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A painfully earnest story about London riot grrrls running wild, but the gifted young cast still shine.

Premiering in Toronto, this British social-realist drama follows the bumpy emotional journey of a grieving social worker and two troubled teenage girls.

The co-called "England riots" of August 2011 saw a surge of looting, arson and violent disorder spread from London to Birmingham, Manchester and other cities. Initially triggered by the fatal police shooting of an unarmed man, Mark Duggan, the disturbances raged for six days and ended with mass arrests. More than 1,000 people were later charged with related criminal offenses. The somber London-set drama Urban Hymn uses the riots as a narrative hook, though in fact they only figure marginally in a heart-tugging story about tough love and painful loss right across the social spectrum.

The director is Scottish-born Michael Caton-Jones, who has amassed a solid track record on both sides of the Atlantic, returning to features for the first time since making the notorious flop Basic Instinct 2 nine years ago. Premiering in Toronto today, his latest film boasts a fine cast and a glossy finish, but its fatal flaw is Nick Moorcroft's clunky, condescending, cloyingly sentimental script. Even so, there is an established audience for this kind of well-intentioned social realism. The newsworthy subject and young multi-racial leads should also help stir further festival and media interest.

The heart of the story is an inseparable pair of teenage bad girls, Jamie (Letitia Wright) and Leanne (Isabella Laughland), who we first see on phone-camera footage gleefully rampaging and looting during the riots. Both have tragic back stories involving broken homes, dead parents and criminal convictions. With their 18th birthdays looming, both are facing a rocky future as they near the end of their time in Alpha House, a state-run residential home for children.

The film counterpoints the duo's chaotic lives with Kate (Shirley Henderson), a nervy middle-aged academic who lives in chilly, insulated privilege in the leafy suburbs with her crudely drawn, boorishly unsympathetic husband (Steven Mackintosh). After 15 years as a sociology lecturer, Kate has just been accepted as a hands-on social worker at Alpha House, despite doubts from new boss (Ian Hart) that she can handle grueling frontline duties. Sure enough, Kate is shocked by the level of verbal abuse and physical violence she encounters, but she perseveres, partly driven by a recent personal tragedy.

See more The Scene at TIFF 2015 (Photos)

From here, Urban Hymn unfolds in predictably schematic steps and flat, stilted dialogue. Jamie is initially fiercely hostile to "do-gooder" Kate, but is there any chance this mismatched pair will eventually form a warm mother-daughter bond, and even discover a mutual love of vintage soul music? Sorry, no spoilers. When Leanne's toxic influence is temporarily removed during one of her periodic spells in juvenile custody, Kate even succeeds in coaxing Jamie to join her in singing with her community choir, who for some bizarre reason specialize in soggy soft-rock ballads. This leads Jamie in conveniently short steps to a place at music college, her own apartment and a future full of hope. Like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, all she wants is a room somewhere.

Of course, Moorcroft and Caton-Jones throw a few token flies into this magical feelgood ointment, but they are plainly so deeply invested in Leanne's success that a positive outcome is never really in doubt. Indeed, there is something slightly creepy in how our sympathies are directed so heavily towards the well-mannered "good girl" Jamie. By the final act she has transformed into a saintly, super-talented, virginal innocent cruelly led astray by bad-ass Leanne, who smokes crack, has a violent temper and even enjoys having sex! With boys! Burn the witch! A psychoanalyst might detect of whiff of Madonna-whore complex here. Let's just call it simplistic, and oddly puritanical for a film which ostensibly preaches compassion for damaged underclass outsiders.

Urban Hymn is well-meaning, old-fashioned, semi-successful attempt to make a Big Statement about Serious Issues. This it does with all the passive-aggressive clumsiness embodied by Martyn Berg and Tom Linden's tear-jerking, heart-prodding, twinkle-saturated score. That said, the film does feature some sweetly surprising touches, including a cameo by the British musician and activist Billy Bragg, fictionalizing one of his regular prison visits with his musical rehabilitation scheme, Jail Guitar Doors.

It is also hugely refreshing to see a rare British movie whose key cast is almost entirely female, with a rising young black talent as the main star. Laughland makes the best of her thankless banshee role, and Henderson is a past master at suggested deep emotional damage with a single haunted glance. But Wright is clearly in the spotlight here, proving she has huge potential both as actor and singer in her first lead role. She will shine in better films than this.

 

Production Companies: Dashishah Global Film Production, Eclipse Films, Powderkeg Pictures

Cast: Letitia Wright, Isabella Laughland, Shirley Henderson, Ian Hart, Steven Mackintosh

Screenwriter: Nick Moorcroft

Cinematographer: Denis Crossan

Editor: Istvan Kiraly

Music: Tom Linden, Martyn Berg

Producers: Andrew Berg, John Sachs, Neil Chordia, Daniel Toland

Sales company: Metro International Entertainment  

 

Rated 14A, 114 minutes

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