The Road: A Story of Life and Death: London Film Festival Review

The Road: A Story of Life and Death Film Still H 2012
BFI London Film Festival
Exiles on Main Street.

Disjointed documentary meets a broad range of immigrants living alongside one of Britain’s longest roads.

By turns touching, funny and revealing, this bittersweet road movie about the exiles and émigrés drawn to seek a better life in multicultural Britain was commissioned for BBC television’s documentary strand Storyville. The director Mark Isaacs has a decade-long track record of non-fiction TV films with a socially conscious bent, often addressing immigration and culture-clash themes through personal stories.

Intimate and conversational in tone, The Road feels like a superior small-screen project. But following its cinematic premiere at the London Film Festival two weeks ago, further festival interest is likely to be stirred by its topical subject matter and diverse cast of true-life eccentrics. While theatrical prospects are thin, TV slots in non-UK markets seem highly probable.

The road in question is a former Roman trade route, later rechristened Watling Street in Anglo-Saxon times, now more prosaically known as the A5. It stretches almost 300 miles from Marble Arch in central London to Holyhead in North Wales, where ferries dock from Ireland. The film was partly financed by the Irish Film Board, and tales of Irish exile are a major part of the narrative mix, but not the whole story.

Isaacs begins his film in the Welsh countryside with newly arrived Keelta O’Higgins, an aspiring young singer hoping to make a new life in London like thousands of Irish men and women before her. But this pastoral set-up is misleading, as the rest of the film takes places entirely in London, meeting various émigrés who live along the initial four or five miles of the A5 in nondescript suburbs such as Maida Vale, Cricklewood and Colindale.

Between sporadic returns to check on O’Higgins, we meet a trainee Buddhist monk from Burma, a German-born air hostess with a penchant for old-school glamour, and an Indian hotel concierge patiently jumping through bureaucratic hoops to secure a visa for his wife. Isaacs also bonds with Peggy Roth, an elderly Viennese Jew who lost most of her family during the Holocaust, and Irishman Billy Leahy, a former construction worker in boozy, bleary-eyed decline. Isaacs asks him what went wrong. “I lost my way in the fog,” Leahy replies, with poignant poetry.

Isaacs set out to make The Road with no pre-determined script or structure beyond a desire to find subjects “emblematic of the immigrant experience”. He claims to be fascinated by the ordinary and unremarkable, which is evident here, sometimes to the point of banality. The film’s relaxed rhythm and unobtrusive tone are hardly conducive to great drama, but these very human stories slowly accumulate a quiet emotional force, especially during the closing scenes. It is no great spoiler to reveal that we get to witness two funerals. And no weddings.

The Road never lives up to the widescreen promise of its title, settling instead to tell a few scattered life stories from a handful of North London neighborhoods. The theme of exile also feels a little diffuse, possibly because it is far too broad and complex to cover in one documentary. Indeed, the London-Irish angle alone could fill several hours of film and barely even graze the surface. Isaacs essentially gives us a few splashes of paint on a giant canvas, inviting the viewer to fill in the vast blank spaces all around. To his credit, this sentimental journey is never boring, even if it ultimately leads us on a road to nowhere.

Venue: London Film Festival screening, October 17

Production companies: Bungalow Town Productions, Crow Hill Films

Producers: Rachel Wexler, Aisling Ahmed

Cast: Keelta O’Higgins, Peggy Roth, Billy Leahy, Iqbal Ahmed

Director: Marc Isaacs

Screenplay: Mark Isaacs, Iqbal Ahmed

Cinematography: Marc Isaacs

Editor: David Charap

Music: Lance Hogan

Sales company: Bungalow Town Productions

Rating TBC, 75 minutes