London River, directed by French-Algerian filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb (Days of Glory, Outside The Law), made its way to DVD/VOD yesterday, when I was able to catch it via Amazon Instant Video. Aside from a few connection hiccups, I was able to fully appreciate this moving story of a market gardener from Guernsey, played by the magnificent Brenda Blethyn (1996 Secrets and Lies), and a French-speaking African man from France, the late Sotigui Kouyaté in a subdued yet superb performance, who arrive in London to search for their missing children in the aftermath of the 2005 train and bus terrorist bombings.
Elisabeth (Blethyn) is a widow in the British Channel Islands. We follow her as she visits her late husband’s grave and later at home as she watches the news of the London train and bus bombings. Concerned for her daughter that lives in the city, naturally Elisabeth calls her and leaves her a voicemail. From the film’s synopsis and trailer alone, you sense it will be somewhat predictable. It really doesn’t matter here. Blethyn and Kouyaté’s organic and arresting performances take you on a journey of the human emotions gamut through the film’s duration.
Although slightly worried, after Elisabeth leaves her daughter a couple more voicemails, she is not expecting the worst. You get the feeling that they don’t speak everyday, and perhaps, just like many of our mothers do, she trusts that her daughter is safe and enjoying her independence away from home.
After multiple voicemails go unanswered, Elisabeth travels inland to check on her daughter who lives in a London flat on a Muslim neighborhood. She’s has to ask the driver if that is the right address. A Muslim landlord lets her in the daughter’s flat. Prejudice is obviously at an all-time high, and Elisabeth’s bewilderment and worry progress as she gathers information about her daughter’s whereabouts.
She begins a dire search through crowded hospitals, and she places missing flyers in the area. Ousmane (Kouyaté), a tall, gaunt man with long dreads and deep-set dark eyes enters the picture; he’s searching for his 21-year old son, whom he abandoned at the age of six to go live in France. Ousmane is sent to London by the young man’s distressed mother back in Africa after her numerous calls to her son have been left unanswered.
Ousmane makes a connection of Elisabeth’s daughter to his son. He recognizes the same young woman in the missing person flyer to a photo he has of him; she’s sitting next to him in a picture taken of his Arabic class. Ousmane contacts Elisabeth to meet; she’s confused and shocked. Why is her daughter in an Arabic class? Who is this African man and his son? The film’s angle on prejudice seems to edge on the fact that Ousmane and his son are Muslim, but certainly, the race and culture clash are unmistakable.
She immediately becomes suspicious; Ousmane is brought in for questioning by the police, who in turn search her daughter’s flat for DNA. Elisabeth finally finds out her daughter and Ousmane’s son have been living together. She’s outraged; she calls her brother back at home and rants about her daughter alliance with the Muslim world. In denial, she asks Ousmane to leave, although she will keep running into this man as they both search for their children.
What’s enlightening and beautiful about this film, although at a quick glance it’s been called too politically correct in a few reviews, is how under such devastating circumstances, what would be in some cases a cause of estrangement and even disownment of one’s child, Elisabeth’s prejudices begin to first take a back seat, then become tolerable, until they seemingly dissipate. She wants her daughter desperately, alive and well. In one key scene, Elisabeth calls her daughter’s phone, and amidst tears, smiles, chuckles and anguish, says in the voicemail, “Please call me back. I know about your friend; it’s okay! Are you getting a new hat? Please call me!”
Elisabeth begins to find comfort in Ousmane; she offers to share the flat so he doesn’t have to leave since he can’t afford his hotel’s bills. By the way, there’s no romantic subplot, just in case you’re wondering. These strangers start shedding their layers, exposing their ignorance, imperfections and vulnerabilities; prejudices become trivial as they find out how much in common they truly have. What follows are several sequences that showcase compassion, unity and the human bond.
“I think my son loved your daughter and perhaps your daughter loved my son too… True happiness is loving life.” – Ousmane