Review: London River

(Rachid Bouchareb, 2009, UK/France)

Taking as its subject matter the devastating terrorist attacks that ran amuck above and below the frantic streets of London on 7th July 2005, London River is a ruminative study of slow burning grief, played out by a cast that exemplify the shattering intimacy of coming to terms with looming sorrow.

Brenda Blethyn plays Elisabeth, a middle-aged widower padding out a relatively lonely existence on her farm on the quiet island of Guernsey, all the while doting on her daughter – a student in London – from afar, her presence a loss that evidently pains Elisabeth. Hearing of the attacks, Elisabeth travels to the capital to find her child – whom she soon discovers is missing, and immediately starts putting the pieces of her disappearance together, actions mirrored by Mr. Ousmane (the late Sotigui Kouyaté), a Muslim man similarly searching for his estranged son. With their paths consistently meeting as their respective searches become increasingly more meandering and complex, Elisabeth and the quietly contemplative Ousmane strike up an uneasy friendship, aiding one another in an anxiety-ridden bid for peace of mind.

As much an examination of the catastrophe brought on by terrorism and its numerous ramifications, as it is a culture clash story of racial angst, Rachid Bouchareb’s London River is an outwardly light (it has a meagre runtime of 82 minutes) but weighty and naturalistic portrayal of two strangers teetering on the edge of despair. Choosing to utilise the attacks as a backdrop to the story, rather than tackle it head on – though its presence looms large on television sets and radio stations in numerous scenes, Bouchareb alternatively sculpts a small and reflective insight into the widespread and unprovoked pain caused by a deliberate act of violence. Foregrounding character, circumstance and emotion in favour of finger pointing and speculation, the film has at its hilt a duo of strong performances that are both believable in their physical and mental configuration of impending bereavement. Blethyn, on fine form as the ignorantly Christian Elisabeth, channels her hysterical and unforgettable performance as a single mother desperate to establish an importance in her family’s life in Mike Leigh’s searing Secrets & Lies (1996), while Kouyaté uses his physical fragility as a conduit for his character’s unrelenting sadness.

While there are, inevitably, echoes of Leigh throughout the film, given the similarities in themes as well as a focus on the fragility of humanity, seen implicitly through the cluttered but wholly desolate streets of London and the presence of a multicultural working class (which Elisabeth initially balks at), Bouchareb’s film is no frills British filmmaking at its most agonising, let down only by a tendency to embrace a coincidence in the story that robs the realism it sets out to convey.

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