'Snow in Paradise': Cannes Review

'Snow in Paradise,' Andrew Hulme (Un Certain Regard)
Courtesy of Festival De Cannes

A very different take on modern Islam comes from this feature from British first-time director Andrew Hulme. Based on a true story, it follows a British petty criminal who seeks redemption, and an escape from the gangster life, through Islam. Before taking up the director’s seat, Hulme had a long career as an editor on films including Lucky Number Slevin and Anton Corbijn’s Control and The American. (Sales: The Match Factory)

There's more style than subtlety or substance in this darkly alluring feature debut.

Ace British editor Andrew Hulme takes a moody step into the directing arena with this London underworld tale inspired by the true experiences of co-writer Martin Askew.

CANNES -- Andrew Hulme's Snow in Paradise brings a different perspective to familiar East London gangland turf by focusing on the disillusionment of a second-generation thug who converts to Islam to find peace after getting a sobering taste of vicious injustice. Buoyed by the striking screen presence of newcomer Frederick Schmidt, the psychologically claustrophobic thriller benefits from its compelling setup and rich visual and sonic textures. But its fragmented structure becomes a mannered cover-up for a surfeit of cliches and a shortage of narrative complexity.

Even if it ultimately disappoints, however, the slick-looking film marks a promising move into directing for accomplished British editor Hulme, whose skills have been in evidence on projects as diverse as the docudrama The Imposter, the Joy Division biopic Control, and the first and best of the Red Riding TV crime movie trilogy. He hands the editing reins here to his regular assistant, Barry Moen, who creates an intriguing mosaic out of the early action. It's too bad then that Hulme progressively favors glowering nightmarish atmosphere and puzzle-like nonchronological storytelling over depth of character, somewhat relegating his most original angle to an afterthought.

Hulme co-wrote the film with Martin Askew, whose past provided the loose inspiration for this fictionalized account. Ushered into East End crime by an uncle, he then rejected that culture of violence by converting to Islam.

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The main theme is the exchange of one rigid set of dangerous, soul-destroying rules for another more liberating kind, based on the channeling of anger and aggression into faith. But while it's a refreshing change to see Islam explored onscreen as the solution rather than the threat, the script oversimplifies the discovery by its central character Dave (Schmidt) of peaceful enlightenment.

Askew also appears as ice-cold crime boss Uncle Jimmy, who runs a drug operation out of Hoxton, a longtime low-income East End district dominated by council housing, now rapidly gentrifying into a hipster playground. Contemptuous of the "floppy-haired fucks" that are colonizing the neighborhood, Dave sees his first delivery job for Uncle Jimmy as a ticket into the big leagues. But his arrogant stupidity gets him into trouble when he recruits his best friend Tariq (Aymen Hamdouchi) to be his eyes and ears, and puts them both at risk by skimming a kilo of cocaine for personal use.

When Jimmy learns that rules have been broken, someone has to pay. Meanwhile, Dave is approached to work for Mickey (David Spinx). An old-guard criminal who was close to Dave's late father, he has found his idea of paradise with a swanky family home in quiet upscale suburbia. Mickey claims to want to steer Dave away from the grim fate of his dad.

There's a less-developed thread involving Dave's visits for sex and emotional comfort to local hooker Theresa (Claire-Louise Cordwell), a beat-up single mother who is the closest thing to love in his life. However, it doesn't require one of Jimmy's goons referring to her as a "slosh pot" to point up the marginality of women in this story.

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Center-screen almost throughout, Schmidt's looks and his edgy intensity call to mind Christopher Eccleston. He cuts a charismatic figure with his long, sinewy frame and rangy physicality, projecting a strong sense of the self-loathing that erupts in Dave when Tariq pays the price for his heedlessness. But the actor is let down by the script's failure to provide adequate grounding for his character's religious transformation, which occurs too automatically via the unquestioning welcome of Amjad (Ashley Chin) and others at the local Mosque. And the fact that it won't be at all simple to extricate himself from the world of crime is a familiar inevitability.

In terms of its mix of violent London gang culture and Islamic faith, Snow in Paradise has some overlap with Sally El Hosaini's less predictable My Brother the Devil. The film also shares affection for colorfully specific London vernacular -- at times so thick that it justifies the choice to premiere in Cannes with English subtitles.

But despite carefully putting all the pieces in position, Hulme and Askew's script fails to probe deeply into the central idea of Islam as a source of protection in life's spiritual battle. The film becomes heavy-handed; it's too enamored of its fussy, obfuscating story approach and its posturing depictions of stock gangster types, from the soft-spoken menace of Askew's Jimmy to the more jovial, rough-hewn manner of Mickey, with Spinx doing his best Michael Caine.

While the film's oppressive world becomes more wearing the more it closes in on Dave, cinematographer Mark Wolf's command of burnished light and brooding shadow is extraordinary. The use of music and sound to create tension and define mood is also strong, with a score by Kevin Pollard that ranges from sleepy jazz strains to more propulsive beats.

Production companies: Ipso Facto Productions, in association with Millbrook Pictures, Snow in Paradise UK, Gloucester Place Films, Back Up Media
Cast: Frederick Schmidt, Aymen Hamdouchi, Martin Askew, Claire-Louise Cordwell, Ashley Chin, David SpinxDirector: Andrew Hulme
Screenwriters: Martin Askew, Andrew Hulme
Producer: Christine Alderson
Executive producers: Jane Bristow, Roshanak Behesht Nedjiad, Paul de la Pena, Yasmine Askew, Thomas Sterchi, Lars Wiebe, Beat Arnold, Nigel Thomas, Charlottes Walls
Director of photography: Mark Wolf
Production designers: Alexandra Walker, Sophia Chowdhury
Costume designer: Ian Fulchur
Editor: Barry Moen
Music: Kevin Pollard
Sales: The Match Factory

No rating, 108 minutes.