Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu May 11, 2017 10:57 am 
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Letitia Wright in Urban Hymn

Good intentions

Scottish born director Michael Caton-Jones has had a checkered career. Was his greatest success Scandal, with John Hurt (1989), about the Profumo affair, or the low-keyed early Leo DiCaprio vehicle This Boy's Life (1993, the Tobias Woolf memoir? Certainly not his formulaic 1990 WWII drama Memphis Belle. His 1995 Rob Roy fared poorly with critics. The Jackel (1997) did very badly. But it was his 2006 Basic Instinct2 that was such a total disaster it got Caton-Jones virtually blackballed by Hollywood.

After a period in TV, Caton-Jones is now back a decade later. Perhaps he is trying to redeem himself with the uplifting, socially conscious Urban Hymn. It's a conventional but uplifting film about an orphaned ghetto girl about to turn 18 and be cast out of a foster center - and qualify for genuine jail time, who is saved by a middle-class do-gooder lady with her own tragedy who gets her to join a choir.

What saves this overlong, limp-paced melodrama is the young actors, Letitia Wright (of My Brother the Devil), as the girl in need of saving, Jamie Harrison, and Isabella Laughland as Leanne (who had the same name in three "Harry Potter" movies) as the angrier, doomed best mate jealous of Jamie's newfound positivity and bent on sabotaging it.

The film achieves contextual relevance in the UK to the 2011 London Riots by showing footage of them and convincingly inserting Jamie and Leanne into it to show why they'd have a string of crimes on their records, as well as a history of violence and substance abuse. This background is quickly dropped to focus on the two girls as roomies at the home where the quiet, earnest Kate Linton (Shirley Henderson) comes on the staff eager to, well, do good.

Shirley Henderson has had modest parts in many notable movies ranging from Trainspotting to Bridget Jones to Marie Antoinnette to Harry Potter. Yet her Kate makes one uncomfortable because she seems to lack the guts or the heart for this job. We get no insight into her but she must be proving something to herself to quit a job teaching sociology to do this nitty gritty work. Her husband thinks so, though he is not unsupportive. Kate volunteers for the specifically tough job of minding Jamie, and in a meandering but determined way, succeeds when she overhears Jame singing to herself in her room and learns she has a voice and a talent for Etta James and Northern Soul. Soon Jamie's shining in Kate's neighborhood choir and loving it, and Leanne is doing her best to humiliate and derail her.

The choir leader, Micahael (Matthew Steer) is seamlessly understanding. Your pals come in and act drunken and obscene during a rehearsal? No matter, he offers you a solo at the big concert that very evening. And that brings a satisfying finale.

Obvious though this is, the sets are authentic. And the script writer, Nick Moorcroft, has drawn on his own authentic hard-knocks, roaring-boy background to assemble the plot. Moorcroft has described his violent, disturbed youth, and explained that Jamie and Kate are based on him and his mother, respectively. That family dynamic, however, would suggest a story different from the film. Restructuring Kate as an employee at a foster care center rather than birth mother changes everything to depict the UK welfare structure in a positive light.

It would have been nice if the theme of music and urban suffering had been blended as powerfully as the title suggests.

[i]Urban Hymn[/u], 114 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2015; also Busan. UK release 30 Sept. 2016.
Opening in US theaters and online Fri. May 12, 2017.

A riot police officer directs his colleagues to clear people away from a burning car
in Clarence Rd, Hackney, during the London riots.


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