When confronted by the prospect of a low-budget Brit gangster movie, it’s hard not to fear the worst. Circus, Love, Honour And Obey and Rancid Aluminium (read: Lock, Stock cash-ins) – all have braced us for over-contrived plotting and nattily dressed geezers swapping sub-Tarantino witticisms - and, of course, it’s all steeped in irony, ensuring we don’t take any of it too seriously (as if we could).
Thankfully London To Brighton, the debut from writer-director Paul Andrew Williams, is cut from a very different cloth. From the opening scene – 3.07am, hooker Kelly and 11-year-old Joanne cowering in a public toilet – the viewer is thrown into the film’s brutal universe. One of Kelly’s eyes is lividly swollen, the kid weeps hysterically. Yet needs must, and Kelly goes off to turn tricks in order to rustle up the cash needed to flee London. Williams then starts cutting between two timelines: the present, in which the two females are trailed to Brighton by Derek; and the recent past, with flashbacks showing how waif Joanne met working girl Kelly and got into this horribly sticky situation. The structure isn’t a gimmick – it heightens the suspense, working viewers’ imaginations as it slowly reveals the true horror of what has taken place.
Aided by Williams’ naturalistic dialogue, the unknown cast respond with nailed-on performances. Spruell is chilling in his controlled menace, Harris excellent as the desperate low-life scrabbling for his own survival, while Stanley and Groome tenderly convey a surrogate mother-and-daughter dynamic.
Assembled for loose change, London To Brighton is a film that nonetheless demands to be watched on the big screen, the hand-held camerawork, seedy locations and tough, believable turns bringing it to muscular life. While the prevailing mood is one of grimness, there are fleeting moments (huddled on the train, a tea break on the beach) which conjure up a life for Kelly and Joanne beyond their current hell. It’s a life you’re desperate for them to reach.
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Taut debut from talent-to-track Paul Andrew Williams. Compassionate as well as steely, it's one of the year's surprises. Terrific performances, too.