Tuesday, April 29, 2008

London to Brighton: a dire case of the cunty bollocks

It’s 3.00 in the morning, so the stark flash of a title card tells us, and an angst-ridden woman with a face approximately one-third beat-to-shit hunkers in a public toilet gobbling chips with a troubled little girl before dashing out to service some grim-faced john in the front of his sedan—just a few more quid and they’ll soon be on their train whose trajectory provides the film’s title. While this is going down we also meet a stubble-headed thug or two, collecting fares from their stable of cheerless tricks, threatening every no-hoper in arm’s reach with violence, and speaking the vernacular we might best describe as “home cunties.” There’s shouting, crying and a sweeping ugliness under fluorescent lights.

A self-assured entry into British brutalism from writer/director Paul Andrew Williams, London to Brighton doesn’t leave us wondering what sort of movie we’re watching. The handheld camera locks on close-ups of damaged faces, very rarely allowing two characters to share the frame, preferring to cut back and forth in an exchange or desperate and/or sinister glances. This sordid tale of the marginalized, the crooked, the corrupted and the plain old perverse unfolds with the appropriate level of panic, abuse, misery and dread. If Mike Leigh lost both his sense of humour and his richly shaded characters and suddenly wanted to make a grotesque thriller, might it look something like this?

Williams understands that in such a setting a variety of types needn’t equal any variation in charisma or presence. His spectrum of characters, the small-time and powerful alike, all conform neatly into people who clearly should be doing something else with their lives: Kelly (Lorraine Stanley), the hopeless hooker who appears to be past whatever passes for prime on these streets; Joanne (Georgia Groome), the 11-year-old runaway Kelly plucks from the pavement to initiate into the trade; Derek (Johnny Harris), the track pants pimp-bully taking clients way out of his league; Chum (Nathan Constance), Derek’s largely mute, homogenously groomed yet incongruously handsome sidekick; or Stuart (Sam Spruell), the über-scumbag crime lord who unenthusiastically exacts the bits of routine sadism expected from him while suffering from a whopper of an Oedipal complex. All the lonely people, where do they all come from? London, apparently. And they collide after Stuart’s pa’s craving for pubescent flesh leads him to Kelly via Joanne via Derek and a date that goes horribly, gruesomely wrong. Not that there could have ever been a happy version.

A certain bare minimum of authenticity sits firmly along the bottom line for a film like London to Brighton, but its is a kind of authenticity that, in trying to offer a grittier alternative to Hollywood artifice, excludes such things as a casual brush with human warmth or a second of spontaneity. Which is fine, I suppose, since even those of us most jazzed about this sort of thing generally want it to proceed fast and ruthlessly as possible. Williams never seems less than in his element delivering the staple goods, though a third act conversation about daddy issues between Stuart and Joanne hints at a penchant for greater subtext than London to Brighton allows. Underlying Williams’ narrative are themes that look past the generic, particularly when it comes down to the notion of accountability among the equally downtrodden—Kelly is the closest thing we have to a heroine here, yet her maternal instincts toward Joanne are severely compromised by her role in feeding her to the slobbering pedophiles who pepper her clientele.

In any case, regardless of Williams’ intentions or more subtle talents, your interest in London to Brighton should roughly align to your eagerness to spend time with a lot of largely irredeemable human waste trapped in a deterministic world where only the youngest inhabitants have even the slightest chance of escape. On such terms, Williams has produced a solid feature debut.

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