This haunting British film will linger in the memory long after it finishes. There is nothing particularly grand about it, but that’s what makes it so affecting.
Kate (Shirley Henderson) is an experienced sociology lecturer who wants to be on the front line as a care worker for troubled youths. Finding work in a care home in London, she finds her gentle approach falling of deaf ears. Two troublemakers – whom we’re introduced to in the opening credits, causing mayhem during the riots of 2011 – are particularly immune to Kate’s well-meaning advances. Jamie (Letitia Wright) and her drug-addicted best friend Leanne (Isabella Laughland) are two tearaways who are in and out of prison; as Jamie approaches her 18th birthday, she is desperate for a place of her own, but knows that the law will soon take a far less lenient view of her crimes once she becomes an adult.
Kate manages to spend some time alone with Jamie when Leanne is in prison, and soon they form a close bond that results in the youngster joining a local choir. Leanne is furious on her release, feeling that Kate is meddling and trying to destroy the one steady influence in her life. Jamie has a natural flair for music, but is in danger of throwing away a promising future for the sake of her friendship with Leanne. Kate also has a troubled past and is keen not to see talent go to waste.
The plot uses the riots of 2011 sparingly, and therefore avoids feeling preachy. This is also true of the non-religious choir, and the way in which the troubled youths are depicted is also brilliantly realistic. Moreover, the performances are subtle, yet make their point with great precision. The characters all feel well-developed, and you can tell that the actors individually worked on them as well as with the writers and directors too.
Music plays an important part in the plot, and it is used so well throughout that you can’t help but be swept on the journey. The climactic sequence, set to a vocal arrangement of UB40 hit ‘Don’t Break My Heart’, is one of the best uses of music in recent cinema; it will leave you shaken, as will the action on screen that accompanies it. The final act pulls few punches, yet it feels like the natural end-point.
Before that, we get a smart and sophisticated take on real characters with real problems. The issues that Kate is dealing with (or arguably not dealing with) have a resonance thanks to Henderson’s performance. The youngsters that she interacts with are just as good, and their transformations, both good and bad, have an urgency that is welcome. Director Michael Caton-Jones has picked a seemingly familiar story and given it such a shake-up that you’ll think he has utterly reinvented the genre. The real trick the film pulls off is that nothing of the sort has been done; rather, it does everything that is expected of it with such skill that it hits the beats consistently. Given that this comes from the director of Basic Instinct 2, it’s all the more remarkable.
Urban Hymn was screened at the Glasgow Film Festival and will be released in the UK in June.