The topic of the 7/7 bombings in London has barely been touched on by film makers, so it is interesting therefore that the latest offering has come from a Franco-Algerian director.
Rachid Bouchareb, known for Days of Glory, has taken on this tricky topic in London River. As a European Muslim himself, terrorist attacks in the name of his religion are something that concerns him personally.But this is not like some of the films following 9/11, full of action and screaming. London River is more an exploration of two middle-aged people from starkly different worlds. As the priest in the opening scene says, the film is about learning to “Love your enemy.”
Elisabeth (Brenda Blethyn) is a widow who lives in a remote part of Guernsey. Unable to contact her daughter who lives in London after the bombings, she heads to the city to search for her.
However, the only details Elisabeth has about her daughter is her address in Finsbury Park. On arrival she is shocked to discover her daughter lives in an Arab area, above a halal butcher and has a Muslim landlord.
Ousmane (Sotigui Kouyaté) is also in London looking for his son. He is an African Muslim working in France and has not seen his son since he was six-years-old and only has come looking for him on the request of the boy’s mother who is living in Africa.
What is apparent to the viewer from the start is the lack of a relationship both of these people have with their children. Ousmane left home when his child was young but Elisabeth also has as little idea about her daughter, who she brought up, as he does about his son.
It turns out that Elisabeth and Ousmane have more in common than Elisabeth could possibly imagine. When she first meets him she refuses to shake his hand, she is panicky and rude, whereas Ousmane is calm and humble but she learns to relax in his company.
In their normal lives both work the land, which is both how the film starts and ends – seeing them tending to the land in their respective countries. At one point they share a discussion about elm trees and the fact that they are dying out. The elm seems to be some sort of metaphor for the lack of control these two have in their lives, they can’t save their children and they can’t save the elms.
They both begin a journey discovering the lives of their two children, trying to piece together what happened to them, but more than that, who they were as people. Despite how culturally different they are, they find a common ground in their grief.
The acting from both Blethyn and Kouyaté is phenomenal. You can literally feel Elisabeth’s pain and confusion as she untangles her daughter’s secret life. Both characters exude a gut-wrenching loneliness, that is painful to watch as it increases over the course of the film, despite finding each other.
When the film first premièred at the 59th Berlin International Film Festival, it got a great response. Kouyaté, who sadly passed away earlier this year, won the Silver Bear for his performance in the film.
Despite this, the film had a late release in the UK. This may be due to some big flaws in it. In fact without the excellent acting, it is doubtful the film would stand up on its own.
A major problem has to be the depiction of London. As a Londoner myself, and one living in an area with a large Arab population, I am aware that it was all rather sugar coated. I have not once been approached asking if I need help. This is not to say it wouldn’t happen. What it does do though is show the sense of community in the Muslim world. The local mosque are happy to help Ousmane, whereas Elisabeth is left to her own devices.
Other issues arise in the fact that everyone speaks French. Luckily, because Elisabeth is from Guernsey (where they speak French apparently) she can communicate with Ousmane, but the policeman, the shop owner and the Imam all do too?
And then there’s the police station itself, it’s completely unrecognisable as a modern-day station in the UK. The plot is also slightly dubious at points and the twists don’t quite work well enough.
But all that doesn’t really matter. Bouchareb said about the film:
“I find the concept of the meeting between Sotigui Kouyaté, an African actor, and Brenda Blethyn, a British actor fascinating – beyond the fact of their friendship, it’s a human connection between two people of different nationalities, religions, universes. It allows one to go beyond the cinematic encounter and affords the film a level of truth about the meeting and the different cultures of these two individuals. ”
And it really is that relationship that makes the film work so well. It is hard not to get caught up in them and want the best for them. The 7/7 bombings were a tragedy, but looking at lives of individuals caught up in the aftermath is far more tragic and moving.
London River will be released on DVD on October 11th.