Thursday, December 21, 2006

Review - London to Brighton

A quick glance at London to Brighton’s synopsis may well cause the average moviegoer’s heart to sink. The central plot seems to indicate yet another tired cockney thriller which will wallow in the depths of violence and misery; and the principal characters all appear to be cut from the same stereotypical cloth that we've grown so wearily used to. There’s the hardnosed hooker with a heart, the young innocent who needs protecting, the sleazy pimp, and the cold-blooded local gangster whose distaste for the criminal lowlife around him is tangible. Surely we’ve seen this all before?

Perhaps we have, but rarely have we seen this kind of material handled in such explosive, gripping and intelligent fashion.
London to Brighton opens with an attention-grabbing scene which instantly hooks us into the narrative, and it maintains an extraordinary pitch of gut-wrenching tension until the final scene. The film takes the clichés alluded to above and transcends them with its plausible storytelling, blistering direction and magnificent acting. This is the first film from writer/director Paul Andrew Williams - made on a shoestring budget with a cast of unknowns - and it’s a truly astonishing debut.

London to Brighton opens with a bang. At 3.07am two desperate figures burst into a grimy public toilet somewhere in the capital. Kelly (Lorraine Stanley) is a tough blonde prostitute with a horribly swollen black eye and blood seeping from the side of her mouth. Alongside her is Joanne (Georgia Groome), an 11 year-old girl crying hysterically, wearing torn clothes and with makeup smeared on her face. Kelly desperately tries to calm her terrified young companion, reassuring her that they’ll be safe as soon as they manage to get on a train away from the city.

As this scene unfolds we are left with a number of questions. What is the relationship between these two characters? What are they running from? Why are they so scared? Williams is reluctant to give us all the information at first, instead preferring to place us firmly in Kelly and Joanne’s position, and the suspense the film generates in these opening scenes is quite remarkable. Kelly tells Joanne to lock herself into the dirty cubicle and sit tight while she goes out to earn the train fare, although few punters are willing to pay full price when they see her battered face. Joanne does as she’s told, almost jumping out of her skin whenever anyone tries the locked door; but her protector eventually returns with enough cash for a train to Brighton, and once they're on their way Williams takes the chance to introduce the two characters who will be quickly on their tail.

Derek (Johnny Harris) is a small-time pimp working out of a dank flat in a London suburb. When we first meet him he is talking to a nervous blonde at the kitchen table in a quiet, almost tender fashion, cajoling her into having sex with the two men in the next room. His breakfast is interrupted by the appearance of two tough characters at his door, who summon him to a meeting with notorious gangster Stuart Allan (Sam Spruell). Stuart’s dad was the man who asked for a young girl last night, and now he’d dead; and Derek is given 24 hours to track down the two fugitives or he’ll end up the same way.

Williams’ development of the story is superb; he confidently lets the action unfold in its own time, with the tension building steadily, and his carefully placed flashbacks fill in the gaps at specific points in the picture. We stay with Kelly and Joanne until they reach the temporary sanctuary of Brighton, and then we jump back in time 24 hours to see how they met; with Derek ordering Kelly to find a young girl at very short notice, for a client he doesn’t want to disappoint. After a brief search down by Waterloo, she spots Joanne, a young runaway, and offers her the chance to earn £100. Joanne claims she has sexual experience beyond her years when quizzed by Derek, but Kelly sees the truth behind this naïve little girl’s feisty façade. The horrible truth of Joanne’s encounter with millionaire Duncan (a tremendously creepy Alexander Morton) is held back until the film’s final third, and revealed in a subtle but disturbing manner. This approach of drip feeding the plot details into the picture helps Williams maintain the film’s taut momentum, we’re never sure quite where the story is going or what decisions the characters will take next, and the tension grows to an unbearable level as the story heads inexorably towards its violent climax.

Indeed, this film will be too violent and nerve-shredding for many viewers - it’s hard to honestly describe it as an ‘enjoyable’ experience - but it remains grimly compelling at all times. The main reason
London to Brighton works so well is its extraordinary cast; all of whom excel themselves with knife-edge performances. Lorraine Stanley is magnetic as Kelly, her tough exterior slowly cracking to reveal a more protective maternal side lurking underneath. Stanley is a powerful presence, and the careful development of her relationship with her young co-star gives London to Brighton a sense of heart which offsets the darkness surrounding its characters. Debutant Georgia Groome also plays her part with a performance full of raw emotion; she is subjected to some terrible ordeals during the course of the picture, but she shows wonderful resilience and manages to maintain a sense of childhood innocence.

The film’s depiction of its villains is also sound; they’re painted in much more believable strokes than the kind of stock gangster types who populate the films of Guy Ritchie and his sundry imitators. Sam Spruell is brilliantly contained as Stuart Allan, an unpredictable character who is a fascinating mix of sadism and self-loathing. He performs every task with the minimum of fuss, such as the gash he slices open on Derek’s leg early in the film as a statement of intent; the cut is quick, and he doesn’t display a flicker of emotion as he methodically wipes his blade clean. In contrast, Johnny Harris’ Derek is a volatile mass of nervous energy, desperately doing anything he can think of to save his own skin. Derek likes to think of himself as a tough character, but he’s really small fry against the likes of Stuart, and there are a number of neat touches in the film which reinforce this point; when Derek’s gun is taken away from him by one of Stuart’s heavies he plaintively asks “can I have it back, please? It’s not mine”.

Shot for £80,000 in just 19 days,
London to Brighton is a stunning achievement. It’s a work of gritty and painful reality, but Williams finds space for a few grace notes amid the bleak atmosphere - such as the striking shots of the English countryside outside the train window, the scenes of Joanne’s pleasure on the cold Brighton beach, or the unexpected burst of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata as she is led to her fateful meeting with Duncan. It’s this unexpected emotional dexterity, this careful balancing of light and shade, which sets London to Brighton apart from so many other films of this type.

Williams may stumble a little with the twist in the final scene, and the prolonging of Joanne’s agony in the final act is borderline exploitative, but the climactic twenty minutes had me holding my breath and gripping the arms of my seat in a way I haven’t experienced for a while.
London to Brighton grabs you by the throat and ties your stomach in knots for 85 minutes; it’s a fantastic piece of work and, perhaps, it could signify the emergence of a major British filmmaking talent.