Made in Britain: London to Brighton (2006)

I’ve been looking at my recent Made in Britain films, and I’ve not been swimming around in misery porn anywhere near as much as I expected to be. This is partially down to the fact that what passes for the UK film industry is surprisingly diverse and partially because I’ve intentionally avoided those directors that I know ladle out the misery porn by the bucket load. I have also conspicuously avoided the British Gangster movie, as they are almost all horribly bad and the genre is almost completely overplayed. However, at some point I was going to have to take one of these on, and when 2006’s award-winning London to Brighton landed on the doormat courtesy of Lovefilm, it’s clearly time to man up and grasp the very unhappy bull by his even more unhappy horns.

Child prostitution and spoilers below.

London to Brighton opens with a shock. We’re instantly introduced to middle-aged hooker Kelly (Lorraine Stanley) and 11 year old Joanne (Georgia Groome) crying in a public toilet. Kelly is sporting a hell of a shiner, and Joanne looks traumatised to say the least, it’s clear that something extremely unpleasant has gone down. The woman and the girl realise that they have to escape from London as quickly as is realistically possible so decamp to Kelly’s friend in Brighton. In the meantime Derek(Johnny Harris), Kelly’s pimp has been called upon by the frighteningly psychotic Stuart (Sam Spruell) who is somewhat upset about the death of his father, presumably at the hands of the women. Stuart gives Derek 24 hours, on pain of death, to retrieve the two women, and emphasises his point by cutting Derek’s hamstring with a straight razor. Kelly and Joanne spend some time in Brighton while Kelly earns the money to buy Joanne’s train ticket to Devon to her grandmother’s idyllic cottage, and presumably a better life.

Sadly for our two heroines, Kelly accidentally left her phone at her friends place. This turns out to be a catastrophic blunder as Derek uses it to locate the two. He kidnaps them and drives them to a meeting with Stuart in the middle of a field. Stuart, not particularly surprisingly, is a very angry man and makes Derek and his henchman dig a hole, presumably to bury the girl and the prostitute in. Spoiler coming now:

He spends some time talking to Joanne and comes to the conclusion that his father, dirty nonce that he is, was not the victim of this crime. We’re treated throughout the film to a series of flashbacks showing what happened during the fateful night, and while Joanne stabbed the old beast with his own knife, it was Stuart that sat, smoked a cigarette, and watched him die. As a result, his righteous anger is turned on Derek and the henchman. He calmly executes the Henchman and then in a truly harrowing scene coerces the young girl into executing Derek herself.

The film concludes with Kelly leaving Joanne at her grandmother’s and then returning to the streets of London.

This is a brilliant film; a tough and unrelenting road movie of the type that we don’t see coming from Britain. The distance physically travelled may be comparatively small, but the mental and philosophical journey the characters undertake is truly huge. The narrative is constructed through a series of flashbacks that gradually reveal the truly horrendous events that lead up to the opening of the film. We’re not exposed to the whole horror of it in one hit (thank the lord) rather we get introduced to Kelly being coerced into recruiting a young girl, the introduction between Joanne and the paedophile before we’re finally treated to the culminatory events. The revelation at the heart of the story is handled supremely well, with the clever use of a half-open door hiding the events in the bedroom from us until the very climax of the film.

However, this only tells half the story. The “current” events, rather than the analepsis, form the emotional core of the film. It’s clear that Kelly has strong maternal instincts towards the child, and also that the girl isn’t anywhere near as street smart or hardened as she leads Derek to believe. There’s a scene on the pier in Brighton with the two of them using one of those claw grab machines in an attempt to grab a teddy bear- her eyes are lit up with pure joy and Kelly’s involved and looking down fondly on the girl as if it were her own child. These are some touching scenes, and mirrored nicely by the scene in the shower where Kelly is trying to force the girl to wash and clean herself. This relationship is both touching and somewhat restrained, Kelly obviously wants to do what is right by the girl, to some way redeem the horror that she’s (at the very least) culpable for.

The narrative is well constructed, and the flashback device fits cleverly into the film, but the dialogue and character work is also first-rate. Derek, in particular, is a low-level moron that’s way out of his depth, but even he has his limits. His “procurement” instructions to Kelly are grimly pragmatic, he emphasises repeatedly that he doesn’t want her to find some “innocent”; he wants a runaway that has been around the block a few times, because he’s painfully aware of what the child is going to have to endure for her £200. He makes three fatal mistakes- the first is that for the most part Joanne is an innocent, she’s precisely the sort of child he didn’t want. Secondly, he’s grotesquely underrated what the old monster has in mind for her, and thirdly he’s underestimated Stuart. Derek is a nasty, soulless cretin, and has landed himself and the other characters in an entirely avoidable situation.

The acting, to complement the writing, is downright superb. Most of the praise available goes to Stanley, who’s portrayal of Kelly is nuanced and subtle. This is not a tart with a heart, she’s a street whore who’s been on the receiving end of abuse far more often than any human deserves. However, watching her maternal instincts towards Joanne flower is somewhat touching, even if it is very hard to get over the fact that she landed the girl in the soup in the first place. Groome, on the other hand, puts in a staggering performance for a child actress. The role is complicated, but I haven’t seen a child part as good as this in a long time, and the range of emotions that she runs in the film without missing a beat is truly impressive, not to mention that the sound of her screaming in fear and pain will stay with me for a long time. For the male characters, Harris plays the stumbling idiot well. There’s an aura of thuggish menace to him, this is a man that’s lived on the streets and done things he’s not proud of, but he’s caught in a quandary, because on one hand he knows full well what he’s about to do is wrong, but on the other he’s terrified of the old pervert, who is a high ranking gangster of some description.

Talking about Duncan, the beast, the performance by Alexander Morton drips with menace. When he’s looking lasciviously on the girl, the expression on his face is entirely non-determinate. It’s as if he is coolly evaluating her, wondering whether or not she meets his criteria. That he’s a fully fledged sadist paedophile is almost secondary, he’s a frightening and menacing persona and his mere presence in the room is enough to reduce Kelly, normally full of mouth, to uneasy silence. Then there’s Spruell, who puts in one of the most truly frightening psychopath performances that I’ve seen on film in a while. He’s calmness personified for most of the film, not mourning his father, who he clearly despises, but willing to take revenge because it is what must be done. When he cuts Derek, he doesn’t do it in anger, he does it to make a point, to drive home exactly that he is not some with whom to mess around. Spruell radiates icy rage, which is complemented by that he’s got an almost lupine features that merely accentuate that he’s waiting for his moment. When he does eventually vent his anger at Joanne at the end, it’s almost frustrated, like he’s unable to empathise with her plight, and can’t understand why an 11 year old child would cry in a situation like this. It’s a towering performance in a film full of them, and one that’s strangely overlooked.

London to Brighton really is a first rate film. It’s bleakly depressing for the most part and unrelentingly grimy. The happy ending the film supplies is mired in question marks, and the final shot of the film shows that nothing has essentially changed for our heroine, life is still going to be the hard grind it always was, just one girl may think a bit more kindly of her. Kelly has swum with the sharks in London’s underworld for a long time, and nothing really scares her, but I did hope, much as I did with Central Station, that the events she’s witnessed have made her wiser, and hopefully she will be able to reform her life to some extent. As for Joanne, well, the future is less clear cut. She’s undergone some of the most traumatic events that any child could endure, and although she has superficially opened the door to a happier future, the questions remain, and her past could easily come to claim her.

This level of ambiguity works well in London to Brighton. The cinematography is stripped bare, and there’s a layer of verisimilitude to events. The camera work isn’t smooth, intentionally so, and a lot of the angles are urgent and immediate (Kelly earning money in the back seat of a car is a particularly grim shot). It’s actually at its best when it is back a little bit from the characters, and there’s a supreme shot of Kelly and Joanne sitting on Brighton Beach in the full glory of grey British summer that speaks volumes for the relentless grime that they are swimming through. However, most of the time the camera isn’t judgemental; these are just horrendous events that it bears witness to, and the washed out colour palette of most of the film merely accentuates this. Interestingly, inside Duncan’s flat the palette is warm and cosy, it’s a bit jarring, actually, as we are painfully aware that this is where the danger lurks, yet the camera is almost lying by playing up the cosiness of the deceptively plush surroundings. This is some supreme cinematography.

Overall, London to Brighton is a fantastic film. The Guardian named it as British Film of the Year in 2006, and it’s very easy to see why. Paul Andrew Williams has gone on to make abject garbage since this, with the woeful The Cottage standing out as a particular low point, but this early film is so full of promise that I genuinely believe that he has potential and may well make it back. While London to Brighton is clearly touching on brilliance, I, personally, will never be watching it again, although it leaves a haunting imprint on your psyche. As a look at the festering underbelly of modern Britain, I struggle to think of a better film than this one, even if, at the end of the day, I’m not sure I could sit through it again.

Much like Freeway, London to Brighton is a take on Little Red Riding Hood (of sorts), but fashioned in a uniquely British way. A touch of naturalism, a dash of kitchen-sink misery, and a seriously grim premise, combine to twist this into an unforgettable urban fairy tale, and one that I do strongly recommend.


Until next time,


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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

28 responses to “Made in Britain: London to Brighton (2006)”

  1. Jarv says :

    Not sure about this review. At all.

    Never mind.

    • ThereWolf says :

      What do you mean ‘not sure’? About the quality of the review or whether the film deserves an unequivocal thumbs-up?

      The review is fine but I’m not a fan of Brit Gangster films, I can’t honestly say I want ‘London To Brighton’ on my Lovefilm list. But it sounds too good to miss.

      Full marks for ‘analepsis’ – I had to look it up!

      • Jarv says :

        The review.

        I’m sure about the film. It’s not really a gangster film, and that’s one of the things I was not sure about.

        Just got sick of looking at it.

        Analepsis is just a wanky way of saying Flashback.

      • Jarv says :

        PS- the child abuse is harder to watch than the “gangster” shit. Although Stuart is a gangster, unequivocally, he’s not engaged in Guy Richie type Gangsta activities. Well, not that we see.

        The underworld is there, but it’s much more about the woman and the girl and their relationship.

      • ThereWolf says :

        Nothing wrong with the review.

        Don’t think I could stomach the child abuse angle…

      • Jarv says :

        It’s severely unpleasant. Seriously, horribly, viciously nasty. Her crying and screaming is a sound that will stay with me for a long time.

        However, having said that, it isn’t consummated (thank the lord) as Kelly intervenes before the event kicks off, but the film shows us enough of what was about to occur before kelly’s intervention and the bit I put in invisitxt takes place.

      • Jarv says :

        I’m not explaining this at all well.

        Basically, yes it is an act of child prostitution, and yes, what he has in mind is fucking horrendous, but Mr. Beaks would not be satisfied with the execution.

        If that makes any sense at all.

  2. Jarv says :

    Oh and on the LRRH thing- the first time Kelly sees Joanne, she’s got a red hoodie, she’s travelling to Grandmas through a metaphorical dark forest.

  3. Bartleby says :

    Grimy, harrowing movie this. It’s well done, but too much for me. The thing that bothers me most is abuse directed towards children, and while this wasn’t exploitative persay, it’s just more darkness than I personally want to see.

    Good review though. Great performances and fine direction. Just can’t quite recommend it.

    • Jarv says :

      The thing that bothers me most is abuse directed towards children, and while this wasn’t exploitative persay, it’s just more darkness than I personally want to see.

      I was thinking about this, and I honestly can’t think of how he could have done it differently. It’s only revealed as to what actually went on in the scene in the car with Stuart, and even then it’s intentionally obscured, partially because she can’t get the words out through the tears, which is totally how children in distress talk- I work in a school, and you hear it a surprising amount when they hurt themselves or something it’s “I *cry* was *cry* *cry* fell *cry”. It’s also partially because he doesn’t allow the camera to linger. You almost get a snapshot of what was going to happen.

      Seriously unpleasant subject, this.

      • Bartleby says :

        no, I agree…Im not faulting the film here. Approved is the right designation for it. And it says something about our shitsack world that this film is legitimized because its unfortunately capturing a snapshot of abuse that goes on every day somewhere.

        A frightfully unpleasant movie, but a ‘good’ one.

        Man, Britain is the master at this kind of thing. You see Tyranosaur yet?

      • Jarv says :

        On its way. Along with the Langham thing.

        I’ve really not thought this series out, because it’s going to be unrelentingly bleak if I’m not careful. I don’t want to go back to classic British Cinema for some levity, so hopefully that Strippers v Werewolves thing will be quite good.

        I’ve got Neds and Anuvahood to watch as well. More kitchen sink drama. Yay. Although Anuvahood is meant to be a comedy.

        Oh, and Submarine as well, but that’s set in Wales. I suppose I could go for last year’s Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights but if I never see another Arnold film that will be a good thing.

      • Jarv says :

        You ever seen Dirty Pretty Things?

        That’s a fucking great film.

      • Bartleby says :

        whats the goal here? Just british cinema? Does it have to be stuff you haven’t seen?

        I think it’s time to bring out the Guiness. Alec Guiness.

      • Jarv says :

        Originally I was going to do modern British Cinema, because there’s so much that I haven’t seen (for a reason, most of it is complete fucking shite).

        I started it because of 13Hrs, which I couldn’t categorise other than that it was purely British. I’ve genuinely had the biggest surprises of anything that I’ve reviewed in this series (Kill List) and the biggest disappointment (Tinker Tailor).

        I did lengthen it back a wee bit so I could do the Cement Garden, so I may do Shallow Grave, and if it all gets too much for me then I’m breaking out Kind Hearts and Coronets, which is one of the greatest movies ever made.

      • Jarv says :

        This is what I’ve done so far:

        • 13Hrs
        • Red Road
        • Spirit Trap
        • Night Junkies
        • Kill List
        • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
        • Brighton Rock
        • Franklyn
        • Daddy’s Girl
        • Donkey Punch
        • Attack the Block
        • Colin
        • Book to Movie Special: the Cement Garden.
        • The Woman in Black
        • Mirrormask
        • London To Brighton.

        That’s a right mix. A few of them I wish I hadn’t bothered with (Spirit Trap and 13hrs) as I’ve nothing particularly amusing to say about them but mostly I’ve had something interesting to talk about with the rest- even Red Road, which is a hopelessly overrated film.

      • Bartleby says :

        Kind Hearts is exactly what I was going to suggest…Shallow Grave is aces. Hmm, you can review Cemetary Junction with your fave, Gervais! Just remember, its not the one where he talks to ghosts.

        Hmm, good british cinema lately…outside the ones you have mentioned Im mostly coming up empty. You didnt like Heartless, if I recall correctly. Having a hard time coming up with some good comedies.

        Could take a peek at Somerstown. That was a good sweet little film.

      • Jarv says :

        I liked Somerstown- I live very near it as well. Heartless when I did watch it all the way through was OK.

        There’s a surprising amount- particularly last year: Brighton Rock, Attack the Block, Kill List, Black Pond, Tinker Tailor, Submarine, Anuvahood, Tyrannosaur, Wuthering Heights and so forth.

        Lovefilm has just sent The Children, which was another effort by this director. Hopefully it’s better than The cottage (which was wank). I also have Dog Soldiers and Doomsday to fall back on, 24/7, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Millions and a fair amount like that.

        Kidulthood as well, I suppose.

        We’re in the middle of a mini-renaissance in British Cinema, but a lot of it feels a bit, well, samey.

      • Jarv says :


        One’s I’ve missed that are really obvious: Kings Speech, Cemetary Junction, Burke and Hare, Coriolanus, 4 Lions, London Boulevard, Made in Dagenham (not looking forward to this), Mr. Nice, Never Let Me Go (not sure this counts), Albatross, We need to talk about Kevin.

        Christ. I don’t trust Wikipedia’s list for this, though, as I don’t consider things like Clash of the Titans to be British.

      • Bartleby says :

        Dirty Pretty Things is great. Looks like this guy only wrote The Children.

        That’s a pretty decent film though. From cinematropolis days:

      • koutchboom says :

        Been wanting to watch Dirty Pretty Things for a while now, it’s always on for some reason.

      • Jarv says :

        Strange, it’s never on here.

      • Just Pillow Talk says :

        Egads…skip The King’s Speech. Fucking dreadful movie.

  4. Droid says :

    It will come as a shock, but I think I’ll steer well clear of this one. Doesn’t sound like a fun time.

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