London to Brighton (18)

Oct 03, 2007
Cranbrook Film Society

The unanimous critical reaction to ‘London to Brighton’ has been that it announces the arrival of a new talented British director in Paul Andrew Williams. Formerly an actor, the film is developed from his 2001 short, ‘Royalty’ which led to him being selected for the Fox Searchlight’s Directors Lab. From the work at the Lab he produced another short, ‘It’s ok to drink whiskey’ which premiered at Sundance in 2004. Several of the characters and actors from ‘Royalty’ including the main characters Kelly, a prostitute, and Derek, her pimp, are also the key players in ‘London to Brighton’.

This pre-history of the film is key to what is best about it. I don’t know if Williams was a good actor but he certainly knows how to get the best out of his actors; even with minimal rehearsal time. The film had a production budget of only £80,000 so there was only three hours rehearsal time with each of the actors. (And incidentally none of the cast or crew were paid up front. They would only be paid if the film was a success; an increasingly common arrangement in independent film making.) Having said that, the lynchpin performances by Johnny Harris (Derek) and Lorraine Stanley (Kelly) were surely helped by the actors having played the characters in 2001. It is in this sense that Williams sees the film as about the characters and another episode in their lives and not a gangster genre film.

Brighton has long been associated with youth culture and violence. Razor gangs were active at the race course meetings in the ’50s as mentioned by Graham Greene in ‘Brighton Rock’, a novel subsequently made into a film. In ‘Quadrophenia’, Mods and Rockers fought pitched battles on the sea front.

Here though youth culture has been drained of all energy. At the bottom of society’s food chain, adults ‘feed off’ the young. Kelly, Derek and Joanne, a 12 year old runaway, are a grotesque travesty of the nuclear family; held together only by economics. This makes them appalling and understandable in a consumer society like our own. Kelly knows picking up a young girl for a paedophile is as morally dreadful as it gets, but if she’s going to do it she might as well make sure she gets an extra £50 for it. The nearest we get to normal ‘parental’ affection is when Kelly laughs and Derek smiles benignly as Joanne tries to get paid in advance for her accepting her first ‘trick’. One of the most disturbing aspects of the film is how age has ceased to be a reliable signifier of lifestyle or maturity. The oldest character is also the most perverse.

There are echoes of Mike Hodges’ nihilistic ‘Get Carter’ here and even more of Neil Jordan’s ‘Mona Lisa’. But unlike ‘Mona Lisa’ where the attempt to save an innocent young girl drives the narrative and the film climaxes with the terrible revelation that off screen, she has been corrupted by perverse sexuality here the focus is directly on the entrapment and manipulation of innocence and that leads to its disturbing, even unsavoury, character.

In Mona Lisa, the garish pier and promenade shop fronts are ludicrous and pathetic but at least they are a vestige of normal human feeling, here Brighton is shuttered, cold, windswept and empty. ‘Normal’ society never appears in the movie. Or not until the final moments and then it has an undeniable ‘chocolate box’ unreality to it. Otherwise the nearest we get to it are Kelly’s pathetic punters, hardfaced before coitus and shamefaced after, and the room of somnolent young people made oblivious by skunk, alcopops and wine. To adapt the famous ‘Alien’ tagline, in Brighton no one will hear your scream.

There is no one like the wide eyed ‘everyman’, played by Bob Hoskins in ‘Mona Lisa’ for us to identify with. So we feel implicated in the drama. The most powerful and disturbing scenes, and there are two of them, are where we see Derek’s ‘skill’ at manipulating young women into prostitution, moving easily between wheedling, frightening, abusing, and flattering, to keep his victim emotionally off balance and vulnerable. Masterful manipulator though he is his face often seems contorted, his jaw and lips twisted by fear and stress, and his tongue compulsively in his cheek, eyes restlessly flicking away from making real human contact. It is a remarkable performance from Johnny Harris. And a disturbing reflection of what a convincing picture of our society looks like.

Paul Andrew Williams | UK | 2006 | 85 minutes | 18

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