If you were to look up the words ‘gritty’ and ‘grim’ – handily placed close to each other in the encyclopaedia of film – you shouldn’t be surprised to see the title of this film as an illustration of what these two terms mean in cinema.London to Brighton (2006) has many merits, a well thought-out cast and a tight and accomplished screenplay just bristling with seedy unpleasantness. What it doesn’t have is many laughs. I counted none, in fact. Unrelentingly dark and quite depressing in parts, it is, nonetheless, a film that needs to be seen. It is very, very well made.
Where Shane Meadows (This is England (2006), Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)) has a jaded eye for the underbelly of British society and a cheeky nod and a wink to the ridiculous, and Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels (1998) et al) makes stylized gangster movies with equal amounts of laughs and high jinks, director/writer Paul Andrew Williams brings gut-wrenching reality into sharp focus and doesn’t let go. Such is the pace of the film, seemingly even at rest, that you can’t help but feel relieved when it’s all over. I would go so far as to say that it is a testament to Williams’s capability to push the narrative in your face that makes London to Brighton leave such an indelible mark on the viewer.
The story is basic, in essence. The opening scene shows two women barreling into a ladies’ toilet at 3am – one covered in blood, one badly beaten and both frightened and distressed. Kelly (Lorraine Stanley) is a naive and used prostitute and Joanne (Georgia Groome) is her young protege – although protection is the last thing Joanne gets initially. The story begins in flashback, with Kelly’s pimp, the truly unpleasant Derek (Johnny Harris) sending her out to fulfil a ‘special request’ for a high-end client of his.
The client is underworld boss Duncan Allen (Alexander Morton) and his tastes run to the illegal and immoral – he likes young girls. Very young girls. The story builds to the point where Kelly has to sit and listen while thirteen-year-old Joanne is violated by Allen. The situation becomes untenable and unbearable and we get to discover why Duncan’s son, Stuart (Sam Spruell) is trying to find the girls to ask them a few questions about what happened between them and his father. He sends Derek and one of his goons out to find them. The chase is on and the girls flee on the night train to Brighton.
Practically everything about this film is pared down to the bare minimum. The dialogue supports the story and is used slowly and sparingly in many places. The soundtrack too is, I suppose, excellent – in that you don’t ever really hear it above the rattle and hum of the dialogue and story. It’s there to set the mood and not to drown it, something big-bucks directors and editors should pay attention to at times. The camera is only ever there to observe and there are some wonderful shots of London and Brighton at their most grim and seedy. There are no big-name actors to be seen, and this serves well in deflecting any comparisons with other roles. Everyone in it is utterly believable, generally unlikeable and all are damaged beyond repair.
The stand-out performance for me was Georgia Groome as Joanne. For a girl of 13 at the time of shooting, she could out-act many people who for some reason do better than she does in the business. Sadly, she followed this knockout performance with the lead role in Angus, Thongs & Perfect Snogging (2008) which, while not terrible, seemed a bit of a waste when you’ve seen what she can really deliver. The scenes where she plays the runaway early in the film are entirely believable, her comportment throughout is extremely professional and when she stands in the cold, sobbing hot tears towards the end of the film, it is well and truly heartbreaking – it’s like watching your own child distraught and being unable to help – it really isn’t for the faint of heart. I would like to see her do bigger and better things after such a promising start.
London to Brighton is a story of the undertow, of the dregs and the players who use them up and spit them out. People smoke, swear, fuck, fight and screw each other over at the slightest provocation. It is unpleasant, it is real. Happily it stops short of pandering to the “down with this sort of thing” brigade and presents the story of real life on the edge of society. Any Little House on the Prairie-style moralizing would be both misplaced and pointless. It is what it is. And it is compelling viewing.