Specially commissioned by the BBC for its hugely successful Storyville television strand before being picked up for theatrical distribution by Verve Pictures, British documentarian Marc Isaacs’ latest film The Road: A Story of Life and Death (2012) is an intimate and occasionally affecting piece looking at the experiences of people who move to London in search of a better life. The titular road is the A5 from Holyhead to London, but Isaacs’ primary focus is the capital’s suburbs found towards the end of the road: places like Colindale and Burnt Oak, where many immigrants have settled; still in close proximity to the road in every sense.
Isaacs introduces a number of diverse characters who have all struggled to make London their home: a Jewish woman who fled Vienna and the Nazis; a young Irish woman who dreams of becoming a singer, but works in a Cricklewood pub serving the generations of Irish immigrants who arrived before her; a Kashmiri man who works as a hotel concierge to earn enough money so that his wife can join him; a retired Irish construction worker struggling with alcoholism; and a German ex-air stewardess who runs a house for foreign students and cares for her divorced husband.
With Isaacs himself holding the camera and filming over a relatively lengthy period of time, The Road achieves a level of intimacy which is both revealing and touching in equal measure. The conversational tone is counter-balanced by Isaacs’ lyrical narration, through which he ascribes an almost mythical status to the road itself; it provides a poetic backbone for the film as well as compositional certainty, anchoring the various scattered stories to the overriding concept. As has been duly noted, filming took place with no pre-determined ideas of where it would lead and, during the earlier stages in particular, there is a feeling that the film is striving to find its own unique sense of purpose.
However, as we spend more time with the characters, a clear thematic and emotional drive begins to develop. Isaacs shows how important the concept of family became to each character once they moved to London. Whether it’s the sense of community in the local pub or at work, the film demonstrates that comfort and purpose seem to depend on company; London on its own is not enough.
From an Irish folk night to a make-shift Buddhist monastery in a semi-detached house in Cricklewood, the characters seem naturally drawn to the culture of their homelands whilst living in the capital. The enormity and complexity of the subject matter inevitably means that A Story of Life and Death feels like it’s only ever scratching the surface of life as an exile. But as a personal portrait of disparate individuals, it’s a lyrical and understated piece with a quiet emotional pull.