A Way Of Life Review
This is an unusually brief review and should be considered as an adjunct to my detailed consideration of the film in this interview with its director Amma Asante. This can be found here.
A deserved winner of the Carl Forman Award for the Most Promising Newcomer at this year's BAFTA awards, A Way Of Life is a hugely powerful film about the social costs of poverty and despair amongst a group of unemployed teenagers in Wales.
It tackles a variety of contemporary themes - racial prejudice, single mothers, sink estates, unemployment, the disillusionment of the young - but it never allows its themes to overcome the central narrative thread, which centres around Leigh-Anne (James), a unmarried teenage mother who lives on her own in a dilapidated flat. Leigh-Anne lacks a proper education, a family who cares about her and the money or ambition to get out of her situation but she has one great strength - her fierce, terrifying protective instinct towards her baby. When her lifestyle threatens to lead to her baby being taken into care, she and her friends look for something or someone to blame and they find the ideal target in a Turkish immigrant, Hassan (Haden) who lives across the road and has the happy, settled family life that none of them have. Events overtake them and eventually they commit an act of atrocious violence which has consequences which are worse than they expected.
Amma Asante's direction is remarkably assured, beginning with a horrifying, brashly over-coloured racial assault and then tracking back to reveal the real people behind the racist thugs we first meet. Refusing to settle for simplistic explanations or speechifying, Asante humanises her characters and forces us to accept that racism is not inevitable or endemic to any society, it's caused by a variety of other factors. Although the film clearly deals with racism in a very direct manner, Asante's real target is the appalling, grinding poverty which destroys hope and decimates communities - the film was partially inspired by the Bradford and Burnley riots. She sees this kind of racial violence as a symptom of poverty rather than an end in itself.
The film looks absolutely beautiful, with lyrical cinematography of the Welsh industrial landscape contrasting with the ugliness of some of the content.
The gently poignant songs of David Gray have a similar effect. Every detail seems right, a result of both the carefully researched screenplay and dialogue, and the work of veteran production designer Hayden Pierce. Asante seems to be a natural filmmaker. There are awkward moments when the hysterical side of the film goes out of control - Leigh-Anne's final breakdown for example - but these are more than compensated for by the breathtaking subtlety of moments like the one where she realises the terrible, irrevocable consequences of what she and her friends have done. Amma Asante's greatest skill may lie in her handling of the actors. She gets a performance out of Stephanie James which is truly remarkable, handles the rest of the young cast with verve and humour and manages to capture the best work which Brenda Blethyn, playing the awful mother of the father of Leigh-Anne's baby, has done for years.
VCI's disc of A Way Of Life is, in some respects, a missed opportunity. It's exactly the sort of film which would benefit from a director's commentary or some interview footage with the cast and crew. In the event, what we get is a barebones disc with only a trailer to accompany the main feature.
The film is presented at an anamorphically enhanced ratio of 1.85:1. It's a good transfer, replicating the sometimes deliberately grainy visuals with accuracy and making the most of the occasional bursts of highly saturated colour. Some scenes are heavily stylised and the disc copes well with these. There are occasional problems with artifacting and a slight softness in places but overall it looks more than adequate.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is fairly low-key for the most part although the music stretches nicely across the channels. Dialogue is often directional and always clear, although some of the accents are quite thick which makes the lack of hard-of-hearing subtitles unfortunate.
The trailer, presented in anamorphic 1.85:1, is fairly representative of the film but ignores the humour which keeps bubbling up unexpectedly and prevents the film from being overpoweringly depressing.
I highly recommend A Way Of Life. It's as powerful a film in its way as Shane Meadows' Dead Man's Shoes and considerably less self-conscious in its technique. The DVD lacks the features which might have made it better value for money but the presentation of the film is good enough to make it worth your consideration, despite the ridiculously high RRP.