Between This is England (2006), the chilling Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) and the frankly odd Le Donk and Scor-Zay-Zee (2009), Shane Meadows occupied himself by adding another string to his story-telling bow with Somers Town (2008). I only mention these three other movies in the preamble as Somers Town is different again from the rest. We at Picturenose (OK, me mostly) do seem to have a bit of a ‘bromance’ going with Meadows, but it’s hard not to respect the guy, as he tells a different story every time and always makes a decent fist of it.
Somers Town gets its name from the area in London around the St. Pancras station, more or less. It’s so called because it was named after 1st Baron Somers, Charles Cocks, after him being given the land by William III. I had to look this up, even though I’m from the south of England, so you might find the Wikipedia page useful if you want to know more. The reason why it was set here becomes patently obvious when you realize how it came to be made. More on that a bit later on.
For starters – in case you needed proof of anything at all – the film is almost relentlessly upbeat. I’m not giving too much away by telling you this, as you’ll know exactly what to feel and when. This is not to say it’s an obvious film or that it’s in any way manipulative, more that Meadows really knows how to wring every bit of talent out of his talent. I’ve never seen one of the main protagonists on screen before (Piotr Jagiello, who plays Marek) but he and Thomas Turgoose (‘Tomo’) basically carry the whole thing along with some surprising power, warmth and humour for a couple of relatively unknown teenage kids. Of course, if you’ve seen This is England, you’ll know what a good turn Turgoose puts in.
It’s a delightful, charming and well-observed coming-of-age drama. Tomo has run away from his Midlands home, thinking like so many before him that he’d find the streets paved with gold in the big city, only to discover that, like so many before him, he gets the shit kicked out of him by a trio of Burberry-clad youths who steal all his belongings and cash. A woman takes pity on him and installs him in a café for breakfast. It is here he meets Marek, a Polish lad who lives with his father, Mariusz. Mariusz is in England for work, a construction worker helping to build the new terminal and rail link for Eurostar’s St. Pancras operations. Polish and former Eastern Bloc immigration has been a somewhat contentious issue for some Englanders over the past few years and it’s very refreshing that Meadows didn’t fall back on the ‘plucky migrant workers’ cliché so overused in modern storytelling (with the exception of Ken Loach’s It’s a Free World… (2007), of course).
The main, and indeed practically the only, storyline is how the two boys strike up an awkward friendship. Marek has a special friend, Maria (Elisa Lasowski), a Parisian girl who works in the café, and Tomo introduces himself to Marek by snatching his photos of her away and teasing him relentlessly about the fact he’s never even kissed her, yet calls her his girlfriend. He takes Tomo to meet her and the three become friends. This really is all there is to the story, but it’s told so well and with such feeling that you can’t help but be drawn into the boys’ actually quite mundane lives. Meadows leaves the story to unfold by itself and delivers the goods with a very light touch. Considering some of his earlier work, this comes as something of a surprise. I particularly enjoyed the fact that he seemed to be flatly refusing to use any kind of device to tug at the heart strings or provoke a reaction. The scene where Tomo gets help from a friend of Marek’s, Graham (Perry Benson) would have turned into a seedy exploitation piece in the hands of a lesser director, but Meadows keeps it light and Graham, somewhat rereshingly, turns out to be just a nice guy (if a little liberal in his free-market ambitions). The only ‘trick’ involved is that the whole thing is shot in black & white, except for the “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more” ending.
So, why set it in Somers Town? Easy – Eurostar. Eurostar funded the whole thing and it certainly shows in some parts. Mariusz exclaims, for no apparent reason, that he was treated to a trip through the tunnel, and expresses his incredulity at being in Paris in under two hours. Mariusz works on the new Eurostar terminal. The fact that Maria is Parisian is not just some screenwriter’s whim either, but I won’t spoil the story for you. I wasn’t aware of the sponsorship when I saw it, but the uncharacteristic heavy-handedness in an otherwise whimsical and gently flowing tale jarred on me. It only happens a few times and it soon passes but I think that – even though this is a film you should see – it could set a dangerous precedent for things to come. Before you know it, they’ll have James Bond drinking beers instead of Martinis.