Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Review - London River

It has been five years since the July 7th terrorist attacks in London, and London River is the first film to deal directly with the events of that day. However, while 7/7 provides the catalyst for the film's narrative, the true-life events ultimately act as a backdrop for the human drama that director Rachid Bouchareb really wants to explore. His film is about two characters from very different backgrounds who have both travelled to London to search for their missing children. Elisabeth (Brenda Blethyn) is a white Christian widow from Guernsey whose daughter has been studying in the capital. Ousmane (Sotigui Kouyaté) is a black Muslim who is looking for the son he hasn't seen in years, and who wants to bring him home to Mali to reunite their estranged family. The casting choices Bouchareb has made instantly work for him, offering us a great visual contrast between the small, timid Elisabeth and the tall, imposing Ousmane, before he allows us to spend some time in their company and see their similarities rather than their differences.

It's hardly an instant bond, however. When the pair first meet, Ousmane having discovered some information that ties his son to her daughter, Elisabeth eyes him with suspicion and refuses to shake his hand. She is a prisoner of her own prejudices, and she looks at every Muslim she meets as a potential threat, with the recent attack the media-fuelled paranoia filling her thoughts. "The place is crawling with Muslims" she wails to her brother on the phone when she has found the area of London her daughter was staying in, but Blethyn achieves a delicate balancing act with this character. She makes us understand that Elisabeth's behaviour is a result of her conservative background, her place in an alien environment and the extreme pressure she is under. Above all, Elisabeth's fear is a fear of the unknown, but during the course of London River, her character gradually overcomes those notions to develop a sense of understanding and openness that seemed impossible at the start.

There is something convenient about the film's setup and I occasionally sensed a strained air of contrivance about the way Bouchareb kept yoking together his two main characters and had their paths cross so repeatedly. I didn't mind so much, because I really wanted to see these two actors together, and to see the relationship between Elisabeth and Ousmane grow into a real friendship. Elisabeth and Ousmane are united not only by the sense of loss they share, but by the dawning realisation that neither character really knew their offspring as well as they should have done. The relationships between parent and child have been allowed to drift away, and the film has a core of sadness and regret about this lost connection. In his last screen role, Sotigui Kouyaté expresses this melancholy through his eyes and his incredible screen presence; he can communicate so much emotion without saying a single word. It's an absorbing, dignified and very touching performance.

Blethyn perhaps has the trickier task, having to overcome our initial distaste at her character's racial views and perform much of her role in French, but she pulls it off superbly, making her character warm and hugely sympathetic. Bouchareb wisely allows these actors to carry London River, rarely interfering with any unnecessary directorial decisions, and many of the best scenes are simple ones in which he lets us just watch the pair sitting quietly together, sharing their painful burden. The film's emotions are kept admirably low-key throughout, which makes the final outburst of grief even more powerful. London River's final scenes are beautifully handled by the director, the sense of great sadness that hangs heavily on the film being slightly leavened by the friendship that has been forged between the two main characters. They may have suffered a terrible loss, but at least Elisabeth and Ousmane could take solace in each other's compassion and humanity.

Read my interview with Brenda Blethyn here.