Wednesday, December 7, 2011

London River

A Frenchman of Algerian descent, London River writer/director Rachid Bouchareb works in the didactic-humanist tradition of Alejandro González Iñárritu and Fatih Akin. When their films are good, they’re very, very good, but when they’re bad they drown out their own artistry, beating the drum so loudly for brotherhood and justice that you pull back from the story instead of leaning into it and wind up feeling numb.

London River doesn't have the emotional complexity or unpredictability of Bouchareb’s greatest film, Days of Glory, but it’s not his worst either. Grounded in a real event, the July 7, 2005, suicide bombings of three subways and a bus in London by Islamic extremists and filmed in a raw, pseudo-documentarian style, London River seems bent on reminding us that we’re all brothers and sisters under the skin and that Muslims can make excellent neighbors, but stellar acting by its two leads saves it from playing like mere propaganda.

Elisabeth (Brenda Blethyn) and Mr. Ousmane (Sotiqui Kouyaté) arrive in London from parallel worlds (she’s a farmer in Guernsey; he’s a forester in West Africa), each searching for a missing adult child who they fear was a victim of the attacks. Everywhere they turn, they run into Muslim shopkeepers—including Bouchareb regulars Roschdy Zem as the children’s landlord and Sami Bouajila as an imam—who absorb Elisabeth’s prickly anxiety with almost superhuman understanding, reflecting back nothing but empathy and a fervent desire to help.

Their cross-cut stories signal their eventual rapprochement long before it happens, and of course they start off wary and sometimes embattled before discovering how much they—and their children—have in common. But Kouyaté and Blethyn travel that well-trodden arc with style and soul.

Kouyaté, who shone in a very similar role in Bouchareb’s Little Senegal, steals the show here as well. He looks like something out of a Max Fleisher cartoon from a distance, pant legs rippling over slender legs as he strides fluidly along, his walking stick, elegantly tattered suit, and long dreads giving him an air of deposed royalty. But it’s his extraordinary face that finally wins us over. Sunken deep above his prominent cheekbones, his gentle eyes gaze out at the world with what appears to be endless compassion, all but forcing us to care about his character and the people he encounters.

Written for The L Magazine

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