Thursday, August 13, 2009

DVD Views: London to Brighton

London to Brighton *** ½
Directed By: Paul Andrew Williams.
Written By: Paul Andrew Williams.
Starring: Lorraine Stanley (Kelly), Johnny Harris (Derek), Georgia Groome (Joanne), Sam Spruell (Stuart Allen), Alexander Morton (Duncan Allen), Nathan Constance (Chum), Claudie Blakley (Tracey).

London to Brighton is a dark, very dark, film that only gradually reveals just how dark it really is. The movie sets the tone early, as we see a woman with her eye swollen up go into a public bathroom with a 12 year old girl, and telling her to stay put. She needs to make some money so they can get out of town. The bathroom is skuzzy and vile, the girl is petrified, and the woman has the look of someone who has been beat down by life.

Gradually the plot comes into focus. The woman is Kelly (Lorraine Stanley), a prostitute who works for Derek (Johnny Harris). Derek has gotten a phone call from a powerful man, Duncan Allen (Alexander Morton) who wants a girl that night. Duncan likes his girls young, real young, and so Derek sends Kelly out onto the streets to try and find someone who fits the bill. This is where Kelly finds Joanne (Georgia Groome), a 12-year-old runaway who says that she is no longer a virgin. Derek has no qualms about using her, but Kelly isn’t so sure, but eventually relents. Kelly goes off with Joanne to see Duncan, and something goes terribly wrong. Kelly wants to get herself and Joanne out of the city to protect them from Derek’s wrath. Duncan’s son Stuart (Sam Spruell) wants to get their hands on the girls because of what happened. But he doesn’t mind taking out his wrath on Derek if he cannot find them.

This is the basic plot setup in the early scenes of the movie. We won’t find out what exactly happened in that room with Duncan, Kelly and Joanne until much later in the film. What we do see is Kelly taking Joanne to Brighton and trying to get Joanne enough money to get her to grandma’s house. We also see the facades that each of the characters have built up over the years slowly start to slip away.

The key element to the movie is the acting, which is universally excellent. Stanley gives the type of performance that never gets remembered at awards time, but deserves to. She completely inhabits her character, and no matter how dark the movie gets, no matter what emotional level she needs to hit, you never catch her acting. She just is Kelly. The young Georgia Groome accomplishes a similar feat with her characterization of Joanne. Rarely have a seen a more natural, unaffected performance by a child actress. Johnny Harris does a great job as the slimy Derek, not just in making him into a bad person, but also letting us see inside to know why he does everything he does. The other key performance is by Sam Spruell, who makes us fear Stuart Allen with his cold, unwavering line readings. His contempt for his father is palatable, and yet in a chilling scene near the end of the film, he essentially becomes him. Looking at these four actors credits on the IMDB, I realize that I have never seen any of them into a significant role up to this point. That’s hard to believe because together they make up one of the best ensemble casts of the year.

The movie is not the sort of British crime film we have come to expect. Guy Ritchie has never been much interested in anything other than his lowlife characters having fun with their crimes. But writer/director Paul Andrew Williams makes an amazing debut film here. His film is not about the fun of crime we’ve come to expect most movies to portray, but about the slow degradation of humanity that it leads to. All the people in the movie are either abused or abusers – sometimes both – and while Williams lets us see their humanity, he doesn’t excuse any of their behavior. There are scenes in this movie that are tough to take – scenes that while not overtly graphic – paint a clearer picture of self degradation and self hatred than most films we see (watch for example when Kelly has sex with her clients after she has already been beaten and her face has swollen up. I can’t think of any other scene in a movie this year which such sadness in it).

The only two characters that we come to care for are Kelly and Joanne. It’s hard to feel too much sympathy for Kelly at first, because after all she does go along with Derek’s plan, even knowing what the effects on Joanne could be. But she gradually wins us over. Joanne is, for all her tough talk, the one innocent in the movie, who still thrills at looking out at the sea in Brighton, and trying to win teddy bears on a claw machine at the local arcade. The movie ends on a slightly upbeat moment, and yet the realization slowly creeps in that this could all just be temporary. The dye has already been cast for these characters, and perhaps nothing can save them from themselves.

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