London River is a highly schematic piece of fiction wrapped around a tragic fact – the terrorist bombings in the British capital on July 7, 2005. Then, in chaotic fact, the explosions killed randomly. Here, in orderly fiction, the reverberations bring about the alignment of cultures, the meeting of minds and the comforting assertion that “our lives aren’t that different.” Maybe so, and the film deserves full marks for trying, at times movingly, to convince us. In the end, the argument is a little too neat to accept, but far too poignant to ignore.
Wisely, director Rachid Bouchareb shows the cataclysm only through the archival lens of the TV footage, then focuses on his real interest here: the aftermath, and the bringing together of two apparent studies in contrast. Elisabeth (Brenda Blethyn) is an English widow living on a small farm in Guernsey. Ousmane (Sotigui Kouyaté) is an elderly African man working as a forester in rural France. She’s a Christian, he’s a Muslim. Obviously, they hail from very separate worlds and yet, upon their arrival in the city, the world of London proves equally foreign to both of them.
In the wake of the bombings, each has come to ensure the well-being of their children – her teenage daughter Jane, who isn’t answering her cellphone; his teenage son Ali, whom he hasn’t seen since the boy was 6. Heading immediately to her daughter’s apartment, Elisabeth is surprised to discover that it’s in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood and that the landlord is a swarthy shopkeeper. The natives may seem friendly, but she’s definitely ill at ease. Meanwhile, trekking gingerly with his walking stick, his greying dreads tumbling down a stooped back, Ousmane is making inquiries about his son at the local mosque. He’s given a class photo of Ali – beside him, smiling, is Jane.
Yes, the pair are lovers; they even share the same apartment. When Elisabeth learns of this, it comes as a shock – clearly, despite their frequent phone conversations, she knows almost as little about her offspring as Ousmane does about his. So we wait for their paths to cross, the black father and the white mother, and they do many times – in the hospitals to check the casualty lists, at the school to question a teacher, in the police station. We also wait for their minds to meet and, after her initial animosity, that happens too. After all, they have much in common. Both are villagers adrift in the city, both are the products of a vanishing past, both speak French as a second language, both live in hope that their missing children are not victims.
From there, at one level, the film becomes a quest that turns on that shared hope and finds suspense in the overriding question: Are the kids alive? At a second level, this is a performance vehicle affording two strong actors the chance to bridge a cultural divide, which they do to perfection, each giving the character a quiet dignity that surmounts ingrained prejudices. But it’s at the thematic level that the picture falters on occasion. The commonalities are too conveniently plotted, Elisabeth’s naiveté a touch contrived, Ousmane’s venerability a bit clichéd.
Despite that, there are individual scenes that are transporting, including a climax I can’t divulge and the matching denouement. Then, the emotion feels credible, the connections seem real and, if only briefly, the title truly earns its metaphor – the same river does run through us all.
- Directed by Rachid Bouchareb
- Written by Rachid Bouchareb, Zoé Galeron, Olivier Lorelle
- Starring Brenda Blethyn and Sotigui Kouyaté
- Classification: PG
London River begins an exclusive engagement at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox on Thursday.