Debuting at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, British crime drama Urban Hymn is an impressively rounded character study set against the London riots of 2011, in which people far and wide acted out in protest to the death of Mark Duggan. Teenager Jamie (Letitia Wright) has been in care at a state-run residential home most of her life, abandoned by her mother. Her best friend Leanne (Isabella Laughland) has been with her through thick and thin, the two leading a life of violence and drugs.
But when Kate (Shirley Henderson), a new support worker with her own baggage, takes up employment at their home, it provides Jamie with a new insight on what her life could be like if she ditched the violence and put her musical talent to use. Soon the two have formed a bond that promises hope for Jamie, but threatens Leanne, who’s less open to change and self-improvement than her friend. Michael Caton-Jones’ first film since Basic Instinct 2 reaped few rewards at the box office and left him all but shunned by Hollywood, Urban Hymn is a quiet treatise on how hope can prevail over darkness.
Led by a trio of tremendous performances from its female leads, Wright, front and centre as Jamie, is the stand-out. Her commitment to the role is abundantly clear and she more than ably depicts the push and pull of Jamie’s loyalties; tied to Leanne through circumstance and experience but keen to accept the help dished out to her by Kate in hopes of a better future. The female bonds are key to the films success in that they provide it with an emotional foundation for which everything else stems from. At times, the script can be prosaic and dialogue cliched, particularly in some of the more icky monologues delivered by Kate. However, the deep-rooted basis means that the wobbles are easily excusable. As dark as it can be, it’s also uplifting in the way it shows how our pasts don’t define us.
Jamie hasn’t had an easy life, but that doesn’t mean to say that her future is a write off, as captured through her discovery of her true self through music, which opens her up to new, enriching experiences. Laughland is convincing in the most difficult role of the three, while Henderson – an actor so skilled at her craft – channels her tremendous range into Kate, making it easy to see why she was picked out for the part. Jones’ direction fits the material well, focused and intent on eking out important themes without them becoming overbearing. The climax, in which Jamie performs a solo, is a moving culmination to her altered life – a stunning expression of self that captures the emotional force the film bears in spite of clunky dialogue and predictable twists beforehand.
Jamie Neish | @EmptyScreens