Directed by Michael Caton-Jones
Starring Shirley Henderson, Letitia Wright, Isabella Laughland
Released 30th September 2016
Gritty dramas examining the social issues of the day are a longstanding tradition in British cinema. And, sparing nobody’s blushes, we do them rather well. Michael Caton-Jones’ Urban Hymn is the latest, and its springboard is a piece of recent history that had many of us reeling. The riots of August 2011.
It’s where the film starts, with a couple of girls bragging to the camera about what they’ve looted, as well as some of the more memorable images from those five days in August – the blazing furniture store in Croydon, for one. We’re then fast forwarded by a few weeks to Kate (Shirley Henderson), starting a new job as a support worker at a young offenders’ home. Two of the girls in her care are Jamie (Letitia Wright) and her best friend Leanne (Isabella Laughland), sticking together like glue and with tough lives behind them, so they’re not exactly co-operative. But it emerges Jamie has a talent for music and is encouraged by Kate to come along to her community choir. It’s the start of an opportunity for the teenager to better herself through her talent and one that she grasps, even when her past life tries to scupper everything.
So, as far as the actual narrative is concerned, we’re on familiar territory. A story about coming of age, of the chance for redemption and taking a better path through life through discovering your own talent. This being the movies, it usually involves some form of performing arts. The idea of Jamie joining a community choir might seem a little out of date today, but in 2011 they were springing up everywhere, so it captures this more positive aspect of the times as well. The choir has a secondary function for the film, as it acts as a Greek chorus – no pun intended – with its songs commenting on the action and the characters’ individual thoughts.
Director Caton-Jones likes to draw contrasts to get across his messages about social deprivation. So the next shot after the footage of the blazing furniture store in Croydon is of the leafy streets of West London, where Kate goes for her daily run. From the outside, her nice Victorian house looks like a smaller version of Alpha House, where she works, but the two are very different on the inside. And, although they seem similar at the outset, Jamie and Leanne grow further and further apart as the film progresses, with one finding a positive outlet in life and following it, while the other descends deeper into the darkness and resents her friend for not coming with her.
It’s the triple whammy of powerful female performances that’s the driving force for the film. Shirley Henderson’s Kate looks small and fragile, seemingly carrying the weight of the world on her tiny shoulders. She’s given some of the cheesiest lines in the film – there are times when the script is top heavy with clichés – but still manages to deliver them with conviction. And, even though you wonder how on earth she’s going to handle these damaged young people, you sense the strength underneath that will carry her through.
Letitia Wright’s Jamie unfolds like a butterfly emerging into the sunlight. Initially resentful and truculent, we start to understand that there might be something more there and that she’s just been following Leanne’s lead. Every time she takes one step forward in improving her life, she takes two steps back as her past re-surfaces to get in her way. On the other side of the coin is Isabella Laughland’s Leanne, who never gets out of her resentful, angry rut and regards anybody and everybody with suspicion. Jamie is all she has and she sees the changes in her friend as a threat, not as an example. She’s also the one who physically changes over the course of the film, looking rougher and coarser as her addiction to drugs and alcohol take over her life.
Despite its failings, Urban Hymn is a compassionate film and the trio at its centre make an outstanding reason for watching. It wears its liberal credentials loud and proud on its sleeve, even if the community choir looks very middle class. It’s in Richmond Upon Thames, after all, so what do you expect? At a shade under two hours, it does drag at times, and you’re all the more aware of that because you know where the story is going to take you. But the performances of Henderson and newcomers Wright and Laughland more than make up for that, providing the film with an authentic beating heart. So you might just need a tissue – and not because it gets mushy.
Urban Hymn is released on Friday, 30 September and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 29 September.