Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Feb 16, 2008 5:33 pm 
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Back to the straight stuff

Perhaps because no American director today could conceivably do anything so lean and mean as Paul Andrew Williams’ 2006 feature, US critics have been quite insensitive to what in 2006 a Guardian critic called "the British film of the year." I guess we just don’t get it. Most American reviews say this is technically skillful, "but…." and then dismiss Williams’ London to Brighton as repugnant, morally questionable, its ending soft. “But at the end of the day, pic has a so-what feel -- fine technique in the service of something rather unsavory,” writes Variety’s usually perceptive Derek Elley. Ugly material, yes; but "in the service" of it—how so?

In fact, the gangster son of his pedophile father commits an act of kindness, in his way, in those final scenes, which are full of horror and terror. Even granted this general dismissal of the value of an admittedly accomplished debut, the US online website Metacritic’s estimated rating of American reviews of London to Brighton, 56, is another erroneous Stateside assessment. English reviews were understandably glowing. American ones were niggardly, but not that much.

The film explodes into action from the first frame with Kelly (Lorraine Stanley) and Joanne (Georgia Groome) bursting into a ladies’ room where Kelly hides Joanne in a toilet. They’re a thirty-something whore with bruises and an inflamed black eye and a frightened runaway not yet twelve with melting makeup whom Kelly found at Waterloo Station for her spineless pimp Derek (Johnny Harris), to please a pedophile gangster named Duncan Allen (Alexander Morton). The man came to grief and his cold-eyed son Stuart (Sam Spruell) comes to exact revenge; but we find this out later. All we know is these hapless females are in danger and have to get out of London. Kelly leaves Joanne in the toilet while she scores tricks to raise money for train tickets to Brighton. On the trip the pair are pitifully delighted to be in the country ("a bit of color"), and Kelly runs down to the beach, plays a game to win stuffed toys at the sparsely populated luna park. But Kelly’s friends in Brighton are as unsavory as Derek and his pals and don’t look much different, and a stupid mistake with a mobile phone leads to their discovery.

As these simple intensely photographed events unfold flashbacks tell what led up to them. London to Brighton is as well edited as it is acted, and the storytelling is seamless and clear. The nastiness is intense, but not rubbed in your face. Most of it is sensed but not seen. Stuart Allen cuts Derek’s leg in a car with a straight razor when he sends him off to find the girls and Derek limps from then on, but we don’t see the cutting. His father tied up Joanne and she screamed, but we don’t see the tying. The writing is economical. Spruell has only a couple of scenes, and his father (Morton) is barely more than glimpsed, but their lines aren’t easy to forget. Cigarettes are a theme. Everyone is begging them and smoking them, and in the climax Stuart tells Joanne how his father stopped him from smoking as a boy by making him eat a pack of cigarettes, even the foil wrapping and the filters, when he caught him with a lit one. The Coen brothers might envy the grim revenge scene, but it's less playful and faster than anything they might do. There’s conventional music at certain points to heighten drama and suspense, but it’s not intrusive and it works. An English rap song at the end credits is grimly articulate and revealing.

London to Brighton shows huge promise and revives the British gangster genre, lifting it out of its slough of cuteness and mannerism. Martin McDonagh might need to have a look.

In what seems likely to be very limited release, Williams' London to Brighton was shown at Cinema Village in New York from February 8 2008. The way America has overlooked and undervalued this film is nothing short of embarrassing.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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