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:
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,