Rachid Bouchareb’s “London River” is simultaneously quaint and far-reaching, a tension the filmmaker never fully resolves. Set in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 London bombings, the movie follows a pair of single parents — a middle-class widow, Elisabeth (Brenda Blethyn), who heads from her country home to the city in search of her grown daughter; and a soft-spoken African man, Ousmane (the late Sotigui Kouyaté), who seeks his estranged son. Drawn together in search of their missing children, they embark on a mission to follow their childrens’ footsteps. The outcome of their investigation matters less than the cultural and ethnic tensions between them.
While the conflicts are rooted in credibility, the story feels simplistic. A political filmmaker to the core (see the Algerian war drama “Days of Glory” for a better example of his strengths), Bouchareb litters news coverage throughout “London River,” but he focuses soley on the fear the attacks have instilled in two very worried parents. For a while, that makes for a serviceable narrative: The duo soon realizes their kids were close, although Elisabeth’s sheltered, quasi-racist mindset makes it difficult for her to accept it. Initially resistant to joining forces with Ousmane, she eventually understands he’s the only true partner in her quest for the truth.
That realization might qualify as a spoiler if it weren’t a patently obvious destination within minutes of the first time Ousmane and Elisabeth cross paths. Her appalling reaction to the community where her daughter lived (“This place is absolutely crawling with Muslims!” she moans) provides a queasily obvious contrast to Ousmane’s wise, patient expression. Their chemistry is underwritten, but Blethyn and Kouyaté so fully inhabit their roles that they frequently manage to transcend an otherwise uninspired scenario with emotional specificity.
The clash of first-rate acting and lackluster material calls to mind Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah,” which also featured terrific performances in an otherwise unimpressive vehicle about a parent (Tommy Lee Jones) investigating the mystery behind his son’s death. In both cases, the actors maintain better grasps on the works’ strengths than the filmmakers in charge.
Kouyaté, who died in 2010, deservedly won an acting prize for “London River” when the film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2009. However, the movie’s rudimentary plot turned fewer heads (which may have contributed to the long delay involved in bringing it to U.S. shores). “Elah” met a similar fate, dividing critics and audiences while landing Jones an Academy Awards nomination.
Can actors save a mediocre movie? In “London River,” they come close. Blethyn’s frantic, sad naivete creates a fascinating contrast to Kouyaté’s understated performance. Nevertheless, Bouchareb tries too hard to emphasize the symbolic nature of their barriers, making the themes of conflict and reconciliation in “London River” more hamfisted than the cast deserves.
criticWIRE grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? “London River” opens on Friday at New York’s Cinema Village and on December 16 at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles. With its dated premise, low-key story and mixed reviews, it seems unlikely that the movie is set for a strong performance — not that it makes a difference for Bouchareb, who has already completed a couple of projects since shooting this one.