The events of September 11th 2001 shook the entire world. On July 7th 2007 (or as its become known “7/7”), the UK had its very own catastrophic event of the same nature that, although was not as big in scale as 9/11, was nonetheless a traumatic event both for those directly involved and those watching the events on the news.
London River was made just two short years after the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005 and many (including the film’s lead, Brenda Blenthyn) would hold the opinion that it was too soon to make any sort of movie, fact or fiction, exploring what happened.
However, if you give the film a chance you’ll soon realise that it’s not necessarily about the bombings but rather that only acts a mere catalyst for the events, or rather reactions, that follow.
We particularly follow Brenda Blethyn’s Elisabeth Sommers, an average English woman who is frantically searching for her daughter who has been missing ever since the bombings. She travels to the city to where her daughter stayed and follows any and call clues she has as to where her daughter is, trying to find out if her disappearance is coincidental to the recent tragedy or if she was one of the unfortunate victims. Along the way she meets Mr. Ousmane, an old African man who is looking for his missing son. The two of them discover they have more in common than they first thought.
It would have been very easy for writer/director Rachid Bouchaerb to make a film that was exploitative of the bombings themselves. But that really takes a back-burner as the film focuses very smartly on the relationship that develops between Elisabeth and Ousmane. They are two completely different people, everything from how they look to their religion is completely contradictory. However, through the search for their children (who are fully grown, but in a time like that they revert back to the children of their respective parents) they, and we as the audience, come to realize they have quite a lot in common.
At its heart the film is an effecting and astute exploration of how in normal life we would pass people by on the street without even giving them a second glance, or if we did we would not talk to them because they’re different to us, and how it takes a catastrophic event to bring people together.
Elisabeth is what you would call an average, everyday British woman who when she first comes across Ousmane appears to be racist or prejudiced. For example, after Ousmane calls her to let her know his son knows her daughter she is reluctant to shake his hand when she meets him. Later, after finding out her daughter had been learning Arabic, she questions why in the world her daughter would bother to learn it. “Who speaks Arabic?” she asks the language teacher, “We all do,” the teacher replies and Elisabeth retorts, “I don’t.” However, this is ignorance as a result of her worry and longing for her missing daughter rather than malicious prejudice on her part.
It’s always a rather risky thing to deal with that sort of stuff on film as there’s the chance of it coming off the wrong way to the audience (perhaps some people did walk away from the film with that distinct impression). But with the help of Bouchareb’s knowing screenplay and Blethyn’s fantastic on-the-ball performance, these issues are dealt with very well.
It takes the talent of a true experienced professional to pull off this complex lead role and needless to say Blethyn is the very definition. Her subtle yet emotionally charged performance allows you to stay anchored to her character and feel everything she does, while at the same time still staying as an outsider looking in. She is helped greatly by the performance of Sotigui Kouyaté as Ousmane, whose aged intelligence, grace and calmness in the most worrisome of situations offsets Blethyn’s character. They are not two actors that you’d think would “click” but the pair are wonderful to watch together.
The tone of the film is kept both gritty yet easy to watch at the same time. The film never forgets the seriousness of its subject matter yet still manages to find humour in the everyday things. Laughter is the best medicine, as they say.
If there was one thing that stood out that detracted from the experience of the film is the musical score. Although sparse and sometimes effective, it often gets in the way of some of the drama. It has a jazz-like quality to it that makes it feel almost like a noir detective film. Something a bit more emotional would have been more relevant.
Instead of exploiting the 7/7 bombings, Bouchareb uses it to explore the relationship between two extremely opposite people. Blethyn’s Elisabeth sums up everything with what she says to Ousmane, “Our lives aren’t so different.” She’s entirely right. Despite being of different races, religions, backgrounds and nationalities, Elisabeth and Ousmane are similar in how they feel, their reactions and need for their situation to be resolved in the best way possible. The film explores these themes and more in a touching and heartfelt way without descending into needless sentimentality. It makes for compelling viewing indeed.
These include the obligatory trailer and a very informative 15 minute interview with writer/director Rachid Bouchareb and star Brenda Blethyn. It looks at the themes and issues explored in the movie while giving insight as to the inspiration behind making it. Very interesting special feature that’s only lacking in the fact that the film’s other main star, Sotigui Kouyaté, doesn’t appear in the interview.