Wednesday 9 March 2011

London River (Review)

It's hard to envisage someone trying to create or make sense of beauty when confronted with an atrocity. More so when the barbaric act to which this person bears witness is the consequence of the worst terrorist attack a city's ever seen perpetrated against it. It, then, shouldn't be hard to understand the initial reluctance by writers, musicians, film-makers and artists in general, to address the events that befell London in the summer of 2005.

7/7 will always be etched in our collective memory, not just because of the eerie, iterative numerical combination, but also because it happened a day after the British capital had been confirmed as the host of the 2012 Olympic Games. Suddenly the mood in the streets went from elation to despair.

However, in the end artists did respond, not only to the bombings, but also to some of the events that took place in the wake of the terrorist attack: the shooting of the Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes two weeks after 7/7, for instance. Nitin Sawhney's eighth studio album, 'London Undersound', aimed to celebrate and comment on London and its cultural diversity. A memorial to the victims of the carnage was unveiled in Hyde Park in 2009. And film made its own contribution, too, in the form of Chris Morris's satire 'Four Lions' and 'London River', directed by the French director Rachid Bouchareb. The latter, in particular, is a movie about tragedy and loss as much as it is about prejudice and ignorance.

Elisabeth (another five-star performance by Brenda Blethyn) is a farmer on the idyllic island of Guernsey. Her daughter has recently moved to London and seems to be doing well, although mum is unaware of what her offspring's daily life entails. Watching the events of 7/7 unfold on TV, Elisabeth calls her daughter to check she is OK. After leaving countless messages on her mobile and getting no response, she finally takes a train London-bound, leaving her brother in charge of her farm. Upon her arrival in the British capital she comes face-to-face with the havoc wreaked by the terrorist attacks. 'Missing' posters are put up on walls outside underground station by relatives who still don't know the whereabouts of their loved ones. Police stations are stretched to the full by the many enquiries from members of the public. Hospitals can barely cope. The only place Elisabeth resists visiting is the morgue. She still has hopes of finding her daughter alive.

Elisabeth is joined in her search rather fortuitously by African immigrant worker Ousmane (a fine turn by Malian actor Sotigui Kouyaté) although she rejects him at first. Ousmane is looking for his son, whom he hasn't seen since he was six. At some point he fears his boy might have been one of the suicide bombers, or at least had something to do with the atrocity. When Ousmane finds a photo of his son with a group of friends, he immediately recognises Elisabeth's daughter whose 'missing' poster he'd seen before. What follows after is a thoughtful and mature meditation on 7/7 and human relations.

The performances are superb, but so are both the direction and script. In just under an hour and a half, Bouchareb constructs a credible story and craftly allows its main characters to take ownership of it. His is a hands-off approach that benefits greatly from the expertise of Kouyaté and Blethyn. The script is rich in nuances (Elisabeth's conversations in French with Ousmane are a joy to behold and put paid to the notion that all Brits are monolingual. They're not). After the initial froideur from Elisabeth towards Ousmane, the barriers come down. At the centre of the story is the tale of two human beings who are not dissimilar to one another: they both work the soil, Elisabeth as a farmer, Ousmane as a forest worker in France; they have both grown apart from their children, in her case she is surprised to find out that her daughter has taken up Arabic (her daughter and Ousmane's son are also a couple). Ousmane, on the other hand, feels guilty for not having been present in his son's life.

In the end, though, even with the tragic dénouement that engulfs both parents, we're left with the idea that when faced with events like 7/7 it's our common humanity which should/will prevail. Precisely the kind of message that the victims of the London bombing would have liked to hear. This is another must-see film.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 13th March at 10am (GMT)

LONDON RIVER trailer from Trinity Films on Vimeo


  1. Thanks for the great review -- the movie sounds intriguing, and I'm popping over to Netflix to see if I can add it to my queue.

  2. I really liked this film a lot - I saw it here in DF a while ago as part of a film festival and thought it wonderfully understated but very moving...I remember 7/7 very well - my last day at work in London and my sister meeting my Canadian friends at a London railway station at the exact time of the bombings - fortunately they were all safe and blissfully unaware of unfolding events - but a day that sticks in the mind for all the wrong reasons - my film recommendation from this week - Winter's Bone - excellent. greetings from Mexico..

  3. Watched "Nowhere in Africa" on your recommendation and it was gripping!

    And I love Brenda Blythen (Secrets & Lies and Saving Grace stayed with me long after I'd seen them)

    So I'm off to order this DVD right now!
    Judy (South Africa)

  4. Wow, thanks Cuban. I don't know how this film went under my radar entirely, but it did. I will definitely be seeking it out.

    Must research this Netflix everyone is talking about too!

  5. I'm running over to add it to my queue as well. I wonder if Netflix will understand why there is a run on the film! I remember the day but I had never heard of the film. Sometimes I wish that all this news wasn't so readily available. I am sure than previous eras had their share of violence but it wasn't on the nightly news. I think that we need our own Euripides to make sense of the era's tragedy.

  6. This sounds fantastic. I was caught up in the story just from your narrative. Kouyate is a traditional jali name in Mali so I'm sure the performance is superb. Off to Netflix like everyone else...

  7. I hadn't heard of this film so thanks for letting me know.

    It's hard to create something from a tragedy so it makes sense that artists and writers need to have some distance from it before they can try to make sense of it. It's only natural that we need time to grieve and come to terms.


  8. Thanks for your comments.

    Greetings from London.



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