County Lines Blu-ray Review
“Do you know what an ‘acceptable loss’ is? Some businesses have what they call an acceptable loss. So, at the end of a job a plumber might have a spare bit of piping they might chuck or reuse. Same with a builder. It might be timber or metal. And it’s also a military term for casualties inflicted by the enemy that are considered tolerable. Do you know what the acceptable loss for your business is? You. You’re the acceptable loss.”
We hear this speech twice in County Lines. The first time, it’s on a long-held close up on fourteen-year-old Tyler (Conrad Khan). Then, after the title card, we flash back six months before returning to the same scene, same speech, different angle.
Tyler lives with his single mother Toni (Ashley Madekwe) and younger sister Aliyah (Tabitha Milne-Price. Picked on at school, he has withdrawn to the point where teachers despair in getting through to him. Then he’s headhunted by Simon (Harris Dickinson) to join in his “county lines” business, to traffic drugs across the country.
County Lines is Henry Blake’s first feature film as writer/director, following eight shorts. However, he has also spent eleven years as a counsellor for young people caught up in the drug trade, and that informs this debut feature. Tyler is just one of many involved in drugs networks across the country, making money while he can, but if things go wrong just one more acceptable loss.
There’s no doubt of the authenticity of the world Blake shows us, though the film isn’t fly-on-the-wall documentary. It’s undoubtedly shaped and unobtrusively stylised, from Sverre Sørdal’s lighting and James Pickering’s ominous score. Blake’s direction also makes use of the architecture of his locations, both inside and out: note the wall prominently dividing Tyler’s home into two narrow frames, a house divided quite literally. Blake also directs fine performances from his cast, largely unknowns though mostly professionals.
Much of the film rests on Conrad Khan, and Blake has the confidence simply to hold the camera on him, such as in the opening scene mentioned above. Although he was a little older than his character’s fourteen when he made this film, he’s utterly convincing as a young teenager whose main instinct is to keep his head down – to the extent of withdrawing at school to the point where teachers try to reach out to him without success. His closest bond is to his younger sister. So he’s a prime target to be groomed as a drug carrier. There’s also a sense of adrift masculinity here too: with no father around, Simon becomes a kind of surrogate for Tyler. He is led to think that he needs to be the man of the house, and the drug money he earns makes him feel he now has authority, even over his own mother.
County Lines is a film which is compassionate, but also one that avoids sentimentality. While we have hope that it can, it’s clear that the problems we see here are too deeply-rooted for easy solutions. But it’s a hopeful film too, and an impressive debut feature.
County Lines is released by the BFI in a dual-format release, encoded for Regions B on Blu-ray and Region 2 on DVD. A checkdisc of the former was supplied for review. Both versions, feature and short, of County Lines have 15 certificates, while Gus & Son is a 12. Children of the City, being a documentary, has not been resubmitted to the BBFC, but it carried a U certificate on its original release.
One advantage of digital cinema presentation is that non-standard aspect ratios become viable: the transfer is simply matted to left and right or above and below, depending on whether it is narrower or wider than 1.78:1. You don’t need specific aperture plates and lenses, as you would for a 35mm film showing, though screen masking might be an issue. County Lines is shot in the very unusual ratio of 1.55:1. While that’s certainly unusual in cinema terms, Blake explains in his commentary that part of his and Sørdal’s visual inspiration was still photography, and this ratio is roughly that of a 35mm still print. County Lines was digitally-captured on the Arri Alexa XT Plus, and as the film has existed solely in the digital realm from start to finish, you can expect it to look pristine in HD on Blu-ray, and it does.
The soundtrack is available in either DTS-HD MA 5.1 or LPCM 2.0 (surround). Both sound much the same, so it’s down to equipment and preference. My subwoofer picked up some redirected bass even in the option with no LFE channel. There are also an audio-descriptive soundtrack and English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing, available on the feature only.
The extras begin with Henry Blake’s commentary which, as he says straight away, is being recorded on an iPad in his car while he watches the film on a laptop, due to Covid-19 restrictions and the distractions of a young family. In fact, he has enough to say that the film’s 90 minutes aren’t enough: the commentary comes with an introduction (4:06) and carries on after the film has finished (12:32), over a black screen. There’s a lot of detail on Blake’s credentials in dealing with this subject matter and the contributions of his cast and crew.
Next up is a Q & A (36:03), recorded virtually in November 2020. This is moderated by Guy Lodge and features Blake, Conrad Khan and Ashley Madekwe. Inevitably, much of what Blake has to say duplicates what he says elsewhere, the other two are able to add their own perspective.
“Anatomy of a Scene” (2:59) is a piece of instant nostalgia for someone, like me, watching during the Covid-19 lockdown, a month before cinemas are due to reopen. This was recorded at the BFI Southbank and you can see the shop and library in the background with people passing back and forth. Not much more than a year ago… Barnes and Khan talk about one scene in the film (Tyler’s meeting with Simon) which they watch on a laptop and which we see in a thumbnail bottom left.
In 2017, Blake made a short film, also called County Lines (21:39), as a “proof of concept” to show to potential backers, as he had not made a feature before. Other than Blake, there is some overlap in the crew, as it was also shot by Sørdal, scored by Pickering and edited by Paco Sweetman. Some of the cast are in common too, though here Tyler is played by Kai Francis Lewis. Another difference is that the short was shot in 35mm (aspect ratio 1.85:1) rather than digitally, but a film shoot proved unfeasible for the longer film. Blake provides an optional commentary, which again is too long for the material: there’s a 5:40 introduction over a black screen before the film starts.
Blake’s previous short film Gus & Son (12:58) is next. Made in 2016, it has several crossovers with Blake’s later films, in that it is also edited by Paco Sweetman and shot by Sverre Sørdal (in 35mm entirely in natural light, aspect ratio 2.35:1). Gus (David Hayman) and son Travis (Anthony Barton) go on one last job together in their tree-felling business, with tense results.
Also on the disc is the trailer for County Lines (1:40) and a self-navigating stills gallery (9:15). Available as DVD-ROM content are the scripts for Gus & Son and the short County Lines: this is noted for the record as I was unable to access them.
The final on-disc extra is from the BFI National Archive, picking up on one of the themes of the feature, namely juvenile delinquency. Children of the City (30:39), made in 1944, takes us to Edinburgh and one of many cities where traditional male role models had gone to war and in many cases not come back, so rising rates of youth offending became a concern. Produced by Paul Rotha, written and directed by Budge Cooper (who was most often employed as a writer in the documentary movement; this was one of only three films she directed) and photographed by Wolfgang Suschitzky, this film advocates a reform of the youth justice system.
The BFI’s thirty-two-page booklet, in the first pressing only, begins with a director’s statement by Henry Blake. A film fan from childhood, given an enviably diverse education by means of weekly cinema trips with his parents, he had made short films but was looking for a first feature with his wife and co-producer Victoria Bavister (who has a small role in the film as an addict) but not the expected thriller or horror film. Next is an appreciation of the film by Michael Hayden and then two pieces reprinted from Sight & Sound, Isabel Stevens’s interview with Blake from the December 2020 issue and Trevor Johnston’s review of the film from May 2020 (not December as well, as it says in the booklet). Also in the booklet are full film credits, credits and notes for the extras (a director’s statement by Blake for the County Lines short), a page of helplines and web resources, transfer notes and stills.