Director Michael Caton-Jones Starring Shirley Henderson, Isabella Laughland, Letitia Wright UK Release Date 11 June 2016
“Those thugs we saw last week do not represent us, nor do they represent our young people,” David Cameron ensures on our TV’s, our radios and in our newspapers just days after the London Riots in 2011. He is quick to highlight that those involved are mindless criminals intent on getting what they want for no reason other than they can. But what if we found out a little bit about some of these ‘thugs’: looked into their souls and poured them out onto a screen for all to see? Saw them as human beings, dealing with problems as a result of being let down by the society they grew up in. There’s a novel idea.
URBAN HYMN opens on that July evening, using real footage from the event as well as introducing our two main characters, best friends Jamie and Leanne, bragging about DVD players they’ve nabbed and joking around with their mates. Next we meet Kate (Shirley Henderson); quiet, with sadness in her eyes, we see she is changing careers for an unexplained reason. Soon their lives collide as Kate starts working at the care home which Jamie and Leanne live in. She takes a special interest in Jamie, and after hearing she can sing invites her to her community choir, where she thrives. Quickly, Jamie starts to blossom as Leanne spirals. Jealous of Kate and Jamie’s close bond, Leanne is keen to destroy their relationship whilst self-destructing simultaneously; in and out of prison, taking drugs and violently assaulting peers. Among all this chaos we also learn that the reason for Kate’s need to help Jamie is her displacing of her own grief of the death of her son (mugged and murdered by two young boys on his way home from school.) The story unfolds with shocking consequences and a bittersweet ending.
This seems like yet another tale of a young ‘urban’ (black) girl being aided by a rich white woman – but actually, I think this story delves much further than that. This is mainly because Shirley’s character is not helping Jamie out of selflessness: it’s a narcissistic action to aid her own healing. Why didn’t she try to help both girls? We see the paths they take – one who’s offered help and one who is not. Leanne is portrayed as someone who resists help, but whilst making it clear that she has been let down too many times to count. She is representative of a much larger issue at hand which ties back to the beginning of the film where we witness young people looting on the streets of London, taking advantage of a feeling of discontent. They are not just mindless criminals. They are hurting individuals systematically let down by society. Barraged by the media as thugs, scroungers, wasters of the taxpayers money, and ultimately thrown into prison instead of listened to.
All the cast gave stellar performance, particularly the two young girls. Isabelle Laughland’s passionate and explosive portrayal of Leanne is stunning in a I-can’t-look-away kind of way. And Letitia Wright as Jamie is beautiful, subtle, perfect. Every time she sang I burst into tears. She had such a powerful balance of bravado and naivety rare to find. However there were elements that made the film feel unbelievable at times. The script felt contrived at points; clearly written by someone with little understanding of how young people in London speak.
But I could forgive these things as the film made me so emotional; happy and sad and angry and peaceful. At the Q&A afterwards, director Michael Caton-Jones and cast were very passionate about making a film that was enjoyable whilst feeling necessary. When asked if they saw themselves in their characters, Isabelle was firm that the two of them were nothing like their characters, however it was clear that she was very much the more confident of the two, answering all the questions with gushing enthusiasm but not necessarily with the same thoughtful restraint as her costar. Letitia was quiet, shy, but incredibly eloquent. With her head bowed she said, “This isn’t my story, but it is someones story and I have to do it justice,” which ultimately she did. She stressed the importance of bringing the human element into the film, saying that she wanted to make this girl feel real. I was just blown away by her candid responses, which spoke breadths about her maturity and understanding. Speaking to her afterwards I continued to think about what she had said, putting a completely different spin on Jamie and Leanne’s story – grounding it back to very present issues in society and making the whole situation that the film is sitting on feel very raw.