When Elisabeth (Brenda Blethyn) first hears about the suicide bombings that shook London on July 7, 2005, it’s from her television set a world away in Guernsey. Among the pastoral setting of her farm, the events that are happening miles away seem even more horrific and unbelievable, but her shock is coupled with a genuine concern. It’s not long before she’s on the phone to her daughter Jane, who is living in London, looking to be reassured that’s she okay. She leaves a message. After not hearing from her, she calls again. And then again, leaving voicemails each time. And that’s when worry turns into motherly panic and Elisabeth soon heads to the big metropolis to find her daughter.
Rachid Bouchareb‘s “London River” differs from other films centered around a terrorist event in that it remains firmly in the background, while the emotional effects stay front and center. There are no dramatic recreations or big name stars dying and/or having their lives put in the balance. Instead, Bouchareb’s choice to leave the ongoing updates broadcast via televsion or over the radio underscores how surreal and unbelieveable those July attacks were (and how most of us not in London were connected), and for Elisabeth it adds to the discomfort of the world she’s about discover.
When she arrives in London, she quickly learns that her daughter lived in the thick of an immigrant neighborhood. Again, Bouchareb’s choice here is pleasantly out of step with his contemporaries. This is not the London we usually see in the movies, instead it’s something more honest and more visceral. Now finding herself a minority among a population of Muslims, Sikhs and more, Elisabeth’s own bigotry and intolerance rises to the fore in small but subtle ways. Blethyn, again reminding us why she is one of Britain’s best actresses, uses body language as much as anything to convey her insecurity at dealing with the kind of people she likely never had to face much in her own life, let alone ask for help. But her desire to find her daughter is primary motivator, and despite her misgivings with the surroundings, she’s soon walking up and down the streets passing out flyers in barber shops, grocery stores, laundromats…anywhere she can…while making her daughter’s apartment above a halal butcher shop her home base for now.
But she will face her biggest challenge yet when the tall, frail Ousmane (Sotigui Kouyaté) crosses paths with her. Searching for his son Ali, it seems the fates of the two children are intertwined. And Elisabeth, who is at first suspicious of this strange man in London from Africa (via France), soon forms an uneasy alliance with him forged by a shared, unmoored feeling. Elisabeth is searching for a daughter she didn’t really understand, while Ousmane is looking for a son he never really knew, having left him at the age of six. If Elisabeth wears her pain and hopes and despair on her sleeve, Ousmane is the opposite, containing his emotions in a constant, regal calm and that is the one chink in the armor of “London River.”
The elderly Kouyaté (this would be his last film role before his passing in 2010; yes, the film has been waiting for U.S. distribution for a while) is all interior to the point of detriment to the film. We long to hear how it feels for him to be tracking his offspring without knowing what he looks like, and what he hopes are for that relationship if he finds him (and how he will explain his absence). His continually stoic face, even in the film’s heavier moments in the third act, is harder to justify as their search stretches longer and longer.
But it’s the complex emotional core of the film and Blethyn’s solid performance that make “London River” worth dipping your toes into. Bouchareb’s choices thoughout are smart and revealing, as he shows a deft hand at making little moments stand out like momuments (the question “Are you a Muslim?” during a police interrogation sequence hangs in the air as both an inquiry and a threat). And the film’s final, hard conclusion sounds a feeling and note of truth that few films that have tackled this subject have dared to ring. [B]