Tuesday 13 July 2010

London River (2009)

Emerging out into the London streets after a screening of London River (2009) the viewer feels deeply shaken and moved. Rachid Bouchareb’s film charts the coming together of two characters as they search for their missing children following the London bombings of July 7th 2005. Elizabeth (Brenda Blethyn) is a widow who works the land of her Guernsey small-holding; Ali Ousmane (Sotigui Kouyaté) is an African immigrant who tends elm trees in France; both travel to London in order to discover the fate of their daughter and son, students in the city. As the pair cross paths in hospitals and on the city streets, prejudice and suspicion slowly give way to mutual sympathy and understanding - particularly when it becomes clear that their children were involved in a relationship.

In his previous film Indigénes (Days of Glory) (2006) Bouchareb challenged the omissions of WW2 history by focusing on the contribution of North African soldiers to the cause. Though the tone of London River is less overtly polemical, there’s still an element of revisionism to this latest work, which takes the viewer into the private places where a sensationalist, soundbite-dedicated media won’t venture. As a film about the very personal consequences of terrorist acts London River feels like a sensitive, thoughtfully-considered rejoinder to Chris Morris’s egregious comedy Four Lions (2009), while as a portrait of contemporary London it’s an antidote to Roger Michell's shamefully all-white Notting Hill (1999). The multicultural London that Elizabeth finds herself in appears to her at first to be a foreign land: initially, she can only believe that her daughter has been the victim of some nefarious Arab plot involving the entire community. Her awakening out of that perception comes, gradually, through her encounters with Ousmane.

Along the way there are a couple of awkward elements: the scenes between the protagonists and police-offers don’t ring entirely true, while Bouchareb occasionally resorts to spelling out in the dialogue emotions that the viewer has already perceived. But London River is a film of such rich and restorative humanity that its minor flaws and contrivances are easily overlooked. In any case, the stunning performances of its two lead actors ride over any rough spots. The remarkable Blethyn carries the first quarter of the film practically solo before her connection with the soulful, understated Kouyaté turns the movie into a beautiful duet. (Visibly frail here, the Mali actor’s death a few months ago gives a special poignancy to his superb performance, which was awarded the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.) The trajectory of Elisabeth and Ousmane's relationship is, of course, affirmative, even heart-warming, but London River does not opt, ultimately, for facile catharsis, recognising, in a subtle, brilliantly-judged coda, that the scars of an atrocity like 7/7 are not easily erased. A deeply sympathetic and profoundly moving film; highly recommended.


  1. well written alex...I will go and see this one!!!

  2. This sounds like a wonderful film, Alex. I hope that I'll have a chance to see it at some point. I always love Brenda Blethyn's performances, and I'm intrigued to see Sotigui Kouyaté's award-winning performance as well.

  3. Thanks, chaps.

    See it and weep.