London River Review
Originally produced for the European satellite television channel Arte, London River is a film much reduced in scale from Rachid Bouchareb’s 2007 WWII war-film epic Days of Glory, but essentially the sentiments are the same. Using the more recent events of the 2005 London terror bombings, the film also deals with issues of racial prejudice, but in many ways the small scale of the film’s origins works to its advantage, allowing the film to focus more closely on the sentiments of ordinary people caught up in the confusion of the days following the attack, without the usual big screen movie clichés. Although set against a traumatic and emotionally-charged background, the points the film makes arise much more naturally out of an encounter in London between a white English mother looking for her daughter who has gone missing around the time of the attacks, and an French-African Muslim man who has come there to look for his son also believed missing by his mother in Africa.
Released in the UK to coincide with the 5th anniversary of the attacks that paralysed and shocked London in 2005, the events are recent enough to still strike a raw nerve when news reports are shown on the screen of the unfolding of events on July 7th and in the days subsequent to the bombings. Actually shot in London in 2008, the events are even more recent and the film manages to successfully tap into the mood of suspicion, fear and mistrust that would arise from the revelations that the attack has been carried out by Islamic extremist suicide bombers who looked no different from the people Londoners sit beside on the bus and on the Tube every day. That’s certainly the initial reaction of Elisabeth (Brenda Blethyn), a widow from Guernsey, who leaves her farm in the hands of her brother while she takes the ferry across to London to find that her missing daughter’s empty apartment is located in a part of London with a high immigrant population. Her confusion and fears for her daughter’s whereabouts are further heighted by incomprehension of this strange threatening foreign environment that is far from the image she had of her daughter’s life.
Her mind is not set at ease when a tall, dark, angular and rather shabbily dressed gentleman from North Africa called Ousmane (Sotigui Kouyaté) contacts her with the news that her daughter Jane may have been closely associated with his son, a young Muslim of African origin, and that they seemed to have gone to classes together at the local mosque. Ousmane is also looking for his son, who appears to have gone missing at the time of the bombings, but as he has not seen his son since the boy was six years old, and the fact that young man, like most of his community, keep their business and their movements to themselves, his whereabouts is even more difficult to trace. As the boy is a Muslim moreover, Ousmane also finds that the authorities aren’t always quite as ready to offer support and advice in finding his son as they are to Elisabeth looking for her daughter.
In terms of a plot, there isn’t much more to London River than this, but the situation is more than sufficient to explore the environment and attitudes surrounding the July 7th attacks, but more than just capitalising on the climate of fear, Rachid Bouchareb also manages to draw out more positive values that the events bring out in people and on the part of the authorities involved through the sympathy shared and willingness to help each other. If the film were a documentary, it could scarcely be more realistic in how it follows the trajectory of incomprehension to grief that is the inevitable consequence of those caught up in the tragedy – or indeed any similar tragedy. Nothing is forced, the coming together of Elisabeth and Ousmane a natural consequence of them following the same trail of hospitals and mortuaries listed on handouts posted by the police, scanning lists of known victims and searching for acquaintances who might be able to provide some clue to the movements of their children on the day in question.
What might appear a plodding tread through the formalities of a search then inevitably increases in intensity as time passes and hopes for a positive resolution start to run out, but are never quite given up on, and the performances from Brenda Blethyn and Sotigui Kouyaté are accordingly impressive in their understanding of the conflicting range of emotions that their characters progressively go through. Bouchareb allows time for these emotions and realisations to sink in and gives space to the actors to even improvise key encounters (Blethyn impressively even improvising in French) where reaction is vital to achieve the necessary authenticity. Shooting the film on a low-budget and from a minimal script over the course of two weeks, with a small crew and little preparatory work, also prevents the plot from feeling overworked, the director wisely allowing the placement of the actors in the locations and letting the still fresh memories work their way towards the surface. Consequently, the chances are that anyone viewing London River, whether originally caught up in the events in question or not, will nonetheless feel every moment just as intensely.