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URBAN HYMN - Film Review
Directed By Michael Caton-Jones
Genre: Drama - Crime
There’s a definite air of familiarity in Michael Caton-Jones’ URBAN HYMN. Coming of age. Redemption. We’ve seen it before and often. But don’t let that put you off this unassuming drama that has plenty to say, in its own quiet and dignified way.
It takes comparatively recent events as its starting point. The London riots of August 2011, with newsreel footage and two teenage girls bragging to a camera about what they’ve looted. Fast forward a few weeks to Kate (Shirley Henderson) arriving at a young offenders’ home to take up a new job as care worker. And the very same girls – Jamie (Letitia Wright) and Leanne (Isabella Laughland) - are in her care. They live in each other’s pockets and don’t respond well to anybody who they see as an authority figure. But Kate notices Jamie has real musical talent and invites her to come along to her community choir. It’s the start of a chance for the teenager to improve her life and one that she holds on to, even when it seems like she’s taking one step forward and two steps back.
Like I said, a familiar story, so much so that you can nearly always see what’s coming at every turn. Nor does the film try to stand in your way of doing that, because it knowns it’s taking a well- trodden path. But the 2011 background, complete with its familiar images – the blazing furniture store in Croydon in particular – gives the film a genuine resonance, bringing it closer to home and making its portrait of young people in today’s UK more than a little uncomfortable to watch. And it’s double underlined by some sharp contrasts. The riots versus the leafy streets of West London where Kate goes for her daily run. Her nice Victorian house which, on the outside, looks remarkably similar to the young offenders’ home where she works. Their interiors are starkly different.
The idea of a community choir playing such a pivotal role in the film might seem a little out of date, but in 2011 they were springing up everywhere, so it’s actually giving us a more positive perspective on that year to contrast against the riots. And it has a secondary function: it acts as a Greek chorus – no pun intended - with its songs commenting on both the action and the characters’ individual thoughts.
While the visuals are solid enough, there are times when the script doesn’t do the film any favours. It’s top-heavy with clichés and Henderson seems to get the lion’s share of cheesy lines, but still manages to deliver them with conviction. And it’s her performance, together with those of newcomers Wright and Laughland, that give the film its beating heart. All three pack powerful emotional punches in their individual ways. Henderson looks and sounds like she has the weight of the world on her tiny shoulders. Wright’s Jamie gradually unfurls like a butterfly in the sunshine, while Laughland is her exact opposite, so deep in a rut of anger and drugs that she can only see the changes in her friend as a threat, not as an example.
URBAN HYMN has its weaknesses, but its compassion for its subject and the triple whammy of Henderson, Wright and Laughland makes them easy to overlook. You buy into their characters as wholeheartedly as they deliver their performances. Which means a tissue or two might come in useful at the end. But not because the film has turned mushy.
URBAN HYMN is released in cinemas on Friday, 30 September 2016.
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