Cast: Letitia Wright, Shirley Henderson, Isabella Laughland, Ian Hart, Steven Mackintosh
Director: Michael Caton-Jones
Writer: Nick Moorcroft
When I saw this film being screened at the Glasgow Film Festival there was a Q&A afterwards with the director Michael Caton-Jones and some of the film’s stars. During this Q&A a point was raised by an audience member about how British cinema has often told the stories of outsiders and provided voices for those who often went unheard. Such is the subject of Urban Hymn. The young offenders featured in this film are amongst those who are often written off by society. Due to the hard lives they’ve lived, they carry much anger and animosity that they are unable to express in a healthy way. Their actions therefore inspire hostility and rejection when what they need is compassion and understanding. Without anybody to help them and to believe in them, they are doomed to pursue paths of indifference and self-destruction. This is why their stories need to be told.
Following the 2011 UK summer riots Kate Linton (Shirley Henderson) gets a job as a social worker for troubled children in a home. Two of the girls there are Jamie Harrison (Letitia Wright) and Leanne Dixon (Isabella Laughland), both of whom act out against their carers. They spend their nights drinking, doing drugs and committing crimes that frequently get them into trouble with the police. While Leanne, the more aggressive of the two, serves a term for one of these crimes, Kate takes the opportunity to try and reach out to Jamie. After hearing her sing and learning of her passion for music, Kate invites Jamie to try out for the community choir. Having become a part of something that actually makes her happy and where she is praised and accepted by others, Jamie starts working to commit herself towards a brighter future. Her friendship with Leanne however threatens to destroy whatever chance she might have.
I think my main issue with this film is that I’ve seen it before. It tells the story of a troubled youth from a tough background who possesses a talent that allows him or her to find inspiration and fulfilment. However, unlike Good Will Hunting or Billy Elliot, this story belongs to a girl and is refreshing because of it. Her perspective allows the film to tell this story in a different way which doesn’t feel tired or routine. The familiar beats are all still there but they haven’t been worn-out because the story now belongs to a character we haven’t seen before. Jamie has the same aggressive temperament as many of the characters depicted in these kinds of stories but also shows herself to be caring and protective of the children sharing the home with her. When one boy gets attacked by a bully, she steps right in and intervenes. When one girl comes into her room after having a bad dream, she lets her stay in her bed. She also remains steadfastly loyal to Leanne, even when she brings out the worst in her and holds her back from reaching her potential.
Although this film is Jamie’s first and foremost, Kate also has a story to tell. She has known tragedy in her life and helping these children is her way of dealing with it. When she discovers that Jamie is gifted with a beautiful singing voice and learns more about her background, she takes it upon herself to help her realise her potential and to help open the doors that Jamie always thought were closed to her. Again, it’s a story that’s been done but still manages to feel fresh in large part due to Henderson’s sublime performance. Leanne is by far the film’s most singular character. This is a character who doesn’t have the trust or the self-worth to believe that she can make a better life for herself. She has resigned herself to a life of neglect, rejection and incarceration and so has given up caring what happens to her. The one thing she does care about is her friendship with Jamie and refuses to let anything come between them. Laughland is absolutely ferocious in this role.
While the film did feel familiar to me it still had enough charm to draw me in and engage me. The film also manages to convey a sense of authenticity through the setting of the 2011 riots, a cameo by Billy Bragg as himself and most of all through these authentic characters and the believable performances of the actors playing them. Best of all is the music which provides Jamie with moments of true happiness, belonging and freedom. Her journey and growth as a character is the heart of this story and Letitia Wright sells every single second of it. During this Q&A she spoke about how this film is somebody’s story which was why it was so important to her to give as honest a performance as she could. Urban Hymn is a touching and honest film with a story that, while familiar, is nevertheless moving.