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This Too Is England

MOVIE REVIEW
Somers Town (2008)

Somerstown_2
Optimum Releasing

Shane Meadows now finds himself at a crossroads after the success of "Dead Man’s Shoes" and "This Is England." While both films saw him refining his talent for earthy naturalism and homespun humor into something more substantial, both films arguably fall just short of greatness because of Mr. Meadows’s reluctance to fully examine the more complex themes he’d begun to experiment with.

All eyes will now be on "Somers Town" for any evidence of continuing maturity, but in that respect the film will disappoint many. It’s a pleasant enough comedy and isn’t really a bad film at all – it can hold its head up high in comparison to most British comedies – but just feels something of a backwards step for Mr. Meadows.

What makes this disappointment more forgivable is the fact that "Somers Town" was never originally intended to be a full feature film. It started out as a short promotional film about the redevelopment of the notoriously run-down King’s Cross district of London, with funding provided by the Eurostar rail company that has just opened its new international rail terminal in the area. During production, Mr. Meadows found that his improvisational techniques were yielding longer shots and more developed scenes that had been planned for, and the finished film clocks in at 70 minutes.

Thomas Turgoose, the precocious and eminently watchable star of "This is England," plays 16-year-old Tomo from Nottingham (where else?) who nonchalantly embarks on a life-changing trip to London for no other reason than boredom – at least, only so much is disclosed. Within hours he’s been mugged of all his possessions, necessitating the forging of a friendship with a sensitive, artistic Polish teenager called Marek (Piotr Jagiello).

Thomas soon begins to see the value in Marek’s favorite activity: sitting in a local café all day, ogling over the unnatural beauty of its French waitress, Maria (Elisa Lasowski). As they jokingly vie for her unattainable affections, the pair also embarks on a series of knockabout hijinks such as stealing clothes from a laundrette, attempting to rent deck chairs in a central London park, and getting drunk on cheap supermarket wine.

All these escapades are shot through with Mr. Meadows’s customary affectionate humor, but there’s an absence of dramatic journey and various themes stay underdeveloped in a manner that would enrage any watching Robert McKee disciple. Following so soon after Mike Leigh’s similarly plot-less "Happy-Go-Lucky," one could get the impression British cinema has abandoned any pretense at narrative cohesion in favor of permanently hyper-realistic acting.

One interesting scene offers evidence of how Mr. Meadows has become somewhat ring-fenced by his own style. After a drunken party, Tommo wakes up in the flat of Graham (Perry Benson), the local wheeler-dealer who lives in the flat underneath Marek's. It’s uneasy for the audience as the slightly weird Graham offers Tommo employment as long as he answers to Graham’s every whim. When Tommo enquires whether that implies any sexual favors, the shattering of tension makes it a hilarious moment, but also highlights how familiar audiences have become with Mr. Meadows's trick of following light humor with brusquely darker twists.

Mr. Meadows does amply prove that he can successfully transplant his work outside of his Nottingham stronghold, and it’s also one of his most satisfyingly shot movies, with Natasha Braier’s perfectly capturing Kings Cross in black and white, with a splash of Super 8 for the final scenes. But something just doesn’t ring true about Tommo’s journey to London and the way he immediately strikes up a friendship with Marek. Such awkward moments wouldn’t be so deleterious in a shorter film where plot devices can be skimped over in order to quickly arrive at core scenes. But when such care is taken to forge naturalistic performances, equal attention needs to be paid to creating a believable backdrop to hang them on.

SOMERS TOWN

Opens on July 15, 2009 in the United States and on Aug. 22 in Britain.

Directed by Shane Meadows; written by Paul Fraser; director of photography, Natasha Braier; edited by Richard Graham; music by Gavin Clarke; production designer, Lisa Hall; produced by Barnaby Spurrier; released by Optimum Releasing. Running time: 1 hour and 12 mintues. This film is not rated by M.P.A.A. and rated 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Thomas Turgoose (Tomo), Piotr Jagiello (Marek), Elisa Lasowski (Maria), Kate Dickie (Jane) and Perry Benson (Graham).

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