Dir. Michael Caton-Jones, UK, 2015, 114 mins.
Almost ten years after the ill-fated Basic Instinct 2, director Michael Caton-Jones makes a welcome return to feature filmmaking with Urban Hymn. It has the feel of a back-to-basics British project after the poisoned chalice of that high profile Sharon Stone venture. The result is a heartwarming tale tracing the bond that develops between a disadvantaged teenager and a well-intentioned care worker after the London riots of 2011. Nick Moorcroft’s screenplay flirts openly with cliche and is a little too on the nose in places but Caton-Jones invests the piece with such sincerity and craft that it develops into a genuinely poignant piece. The British theatrical market is no picnic for indigenous productions but Urban Hymn has a combination of intriguing elements and emotional pull that should be sufficient to guarantee distribution.
The violence and death in Urban Hymn rubs against the grain of any cosy predictability.
Urban Hymn also boasts a captivating central performance from Shirley Henderson that makes you fall in love with her talent all over again. Henderson can often be cast as eccentric side-dressing or scene-stealing support but here she shines in a demanding lead role. Her character Kate has spent fifteen years as a sociology lecturer and has now decided to move to the front line as a residential care worker. Her genteel, middle-class life in suburbia is starkly contrasted with Alba House where she is punched, despised and told that her good intentions are unlikely to make any impact on the teenage residents.
Kate develops a sympathy for belligerent, ungovernable seventeen year-old Jamie (Letitia Wright) who is nearing the end of her time in the care system. When we first see Jamie, she is with constant companion and bad influence Leanne (Isabella Laughland) looting shops and running amok on the streets of London during the 2011 riots.
You feel you know exactly where this might be heading with the anticipation that Kate will somehow overcome Jamie’s antagonistic nature and help her towards the straight and narrow. Writer Nick Moorcroft feels obliged to give both women tragic back stories that makes you even more worried that the film is sleepwalking through very familiar territory. Jamie’s mother was a drug addict who died of an overdose, leaving her only a love of Northern Soul and a fondness for the singing of Etta James. Kate attends a choir and believes that music might provide the way to convince Jamie that she could have a better future.
Any time the film feels a little too obvious and heart-tugging either something in the performances, the soundtrack or the direction convinces you to give it the benefit of the doubt. Caton-Jones doesn’t shy away from the profanity and violence of the teenage girls. There are hints of Kathy Burke’s Perry in the broader moments of Isabella Laughland’s swaggering, overstated performance as the obnoxious Leanne. There are also echoes of Scum when the girls are behind bars and Leanne instinctively leaps to the defence of her more vulnerable friend.
The violence and death in Urban Hymn rubs against the grain of any cosy predictability. The performance of Kate’s choir adds soulful notes to the story and as well as being a charismatic presence Letitia Wright also reveals a beautiful singing voice.
The appeal of Urban Hymn lies in a heartrending, human story that is told with care and concern. What lingers most in the end is the performance of Shirley Henderson who makes Kate’s do-gooding decency and quiet determination a small, cheering marvel. Her modest smiles of encouragement, tears of grief and level-headed compassion lends the character a radiance that lingers in the memory.
Production Companies Dashishah Global Film Production, Eclipse Films, Powderkeg Pictures
International sales: Metro International Entertainment email@example.com
Producers: Andrew Berg, John Sachs, Neil Chordia, Daniel Toland
Executive producers: Meg Leonard, Ibrahim Dashishah, Brian Berg, Nick Moorcroft, Anwar Kawardrj, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross
Screenplay: Nick Moorcroft
Cinematography: Denis Crossan
Editor: Istvan Kiraly
Production design Laura Ellis Cricks
Music: Tom Linden
Main cast: Shirley Henderson, Letitia Wright, Isabella Laughland, Ian Hart, Steven Mackintosh, Billy Bragg