Tinge Krishnan’s Been So Long is a musical delight of heart-warming songs, sardonic British humour, and fantastic performances. Set in London’s Camden Town, its usual grittiness glossed over with a romantic, Technicolor lens, the story avoids posturing with the usual tropes of inner-city life, and instead offers its characters hope.
This London may be punctuated with dashes of neon and flashes of magic, but it also feels real because it’s reflecting the true-to-life multicultural community in this part of town. Simone (Michaela Coel) is a single parent caring for her daughter. “It’s you and me against the world”, she says, though it’s not clear if she’s happy that’s the case. Whip-smart and self-sufficient, focused at her job in a hair salon, and prioritising her daughter above all else, Simone seems mostly content, if a little unfulfilled.
Best friend Yvonne (Ronke Adekoluejo), though, believes otherwise, as Simone hasn’t dated for a long time. “Your vagina called to tell me it’s dying!”, she screams mockingly at Simone, and then demands they go out drinking with the aim of meeting a man. But she’s not being entirely altruistic: she “badly needs a fuck” – and a wing-woman to help her find one. Yvonne’s outspoken horniness then expands into a fantasy sequence where she is surrounded by a variety of barely-clad men, each offering their bodies to sate her needs. It’s playful, and also a fantastically bold, feminist, celebration of unapologetic sexual desire; it’s refreshing to see such a positive representation of female sexuality which isn’t being framed as sordid or sleazy.
With Simone’s mother (Rakie Ayola) childminding, they head out to Camden, ending up at their old haunt Bar Arizona, no longer the bustling hangout of its heyday, and now in the hands of the late owner’s son, Barney (Luke Norris) who clearly has eyes for Simone – though she is unable to see it. Instead, she’s suddenly wakened from her sexless stupor by recent ex-con, now street-cleaner, Raymond (Arinzé Kene), all biceps and pecs poking through his tight T-shirt, and Simone and he flirt over a game of draughts.
It’s the least likely opening to a one-night-stand ever, and proves to be fruitless for them both – but the seed has been planted, so to speak, and through a combination of serendipity and mutual infatuation, a romance slowly blooms. The scene of their first kiss is famous London landmark Primrose Hill, the cityscape sunset horizon behind them a postcard framing their embrace. When they become more intimate, they are bathed in pastels, the lens flare as bright as their sexual chemistry; their romance is a soft palette contrasting the hard world outside.
While Simone and Raymond have their ups, and then downs, Yvonne is having the in-and-outs she was seeking, and hooks up with a courier (Tom Forbes) who delivers to her office job. She also helps Simone out with childcare, and it’s outside the school that Simone’s ex Kestrel (Joe Dempsie) suddenly appears and puts a spanner in the works. He’s not just trouble, but also a reminder of Simone’s pain, and his re-entry into her life threatens not just Simone’s relationship with Raymond, but also her friendship with Yvonne. Her issues with trust isolates her and instead of rejoicing in her new-found love, she ends up fearful, and has to learn to let people in again. Raymond also has his demons, including his old friend, new-dad Wendell (Ashley Thomas), and Gil (George MacKay), a troubled man from his past; Raymond struggles in his own way to accept his lot.
Krishnan skilfully weaves a story of love and friendship, but also shows the challenge of what it can mean to live in the inner-city: death, unemployment, crime, drug addiction, mental illness, disability, racism, gentrification, and of course, heartbreak. She allows the cast to explore the humour in the situation, without forgetting the tenderness and fragility in their character’s hearts. Framing their stories is the exquisite cinematography by Catherine Derry, who gives richness and depth to the variety of actors’ skin tones, and uses warm hues to highlight the beauty of the city, punctuating it with dashes of fantastical neon.
Writer Ché Walker approaches the social commentary with a light touch, rather than being heavy-handed, and his screenplay, adapted from his stage play and musical alongside Arthur Darvil’s original soul/funk music and lyrics, is a winner. Darvil’s and Christopher Nicholas Bangs’ songs elevate the strong performances to another level, and the duet between Simone and Raymond – in a kebab shop, of course – binds their romance, alongside other Londoners, in the most delightful way.
The BFI London Film Festival takes place from 10-21 October. whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
Zoe Margolis | @girlonetrack