Glasgow Film Festival: Michael Caton-Jones returns with a powerful social realist drama
This heart-warming British drama marks a welcome return for director Michael Caton-Jones (Scandal, Rob Roy) after nearly a decade away from filmmaking, following the unmitigated disaster that was Basic Instinct 2. Set in the aftermath of the 2011 London riots, Urban Hymn stars Letitia Wright as troubled young offender Jamie Harrison, an orphan whose time in the Alpha House care home is drawing to a close as she nears her 18th birthday.
Joined at the hip to her hard-as-nails, crack-smoking, bestie-for-life Leanne (Isabella Laughland), Jamie is contemptuous of the various staff members assigned to her case, until she meets Kate (Shirley Henderson), a compassionate care worker who overhears the young woman belting out Etta James songs in her bedroom and persuades her to join a community pop choir. However, the volatile Leanne becomes increasingly jealous and Jamie soon finds herself torn between her loyalty to her best friend and the pull of a potentially bright future.
Graduating from a string of TV roles, Wright delivers a vibrant, star-making turn, as Jamie’s convincingly tough exterior slowly cracks under Kate’s undaunted kindness, revealing a smile that lights up the screen. Laughland is equally good, managing to find a measure of sympathy in what could easily have been a monstrous caricature, while Henderson is superb as the haunted social worker driven by her own tragic past, and it’s a pleasure to see her handed a substantial role rather than being relegated to quirky support.
Keeping tight control of the tone throughout, Caton-Jones (who describes the film as ‘a sort of Ken Loach musical’) maintains an effective balance of strong social realism and feel-good elements. Transcending the occasionally familiar beats of Nick Moorcroft’s script, he delivers something that strikes a powerfully emotional note, augmented by some off-the-beaten-track soundtrack choices and a trio of pitch-perfect performances from the leads.
Screening on Fri 19 and Tue 23 Feb as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2016. General release TBC.