Tom Jennings appreciates Shane Meadows’ sly cinematic commentary on our changing times in Somers Town’s low-key coming-of-age tale.
New Wave Goodbye. Film review – Tom Jennings
East Midlands film-maker Shane Meadows has consistently crafted acutely-observed studies of the effects of capitalism’s structural adjustment in contemporary Britain where it has hit hardest in post-industrial working-class communities – his distinctive theme being male efforts at forging functional social networks to survive drudgery and despair under pressure from both material and psychic infrastructures decaying beyond repair. In scripts co-written with Paul Fraser, sharp wit and spot-on dialogue retain affection for and empathy with realistically conflicted characters while developing an understated but sophisticated understanding of personal pain – contriving hope without either pretension or patronisation. After the micro-financed Small Time (1996) captured aimless slacking and scamming on a Notts sink estate, Twenty Four Seven (1997) focussed on Bob Hoskins’ boxing club keeping kids (and himself) out of trouble, before A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) delved deeper into absent/bad father dialectics spinning teenage friendship and family breakdown. Then the bigger-budget Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002) wove ersatz Western heroics into humble romantic comedy – falling rather naffly flat in the process – before the darker Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) convincingly twisted generic macho conventions with Paddy Considine’s Falklands vet relentlessly avenging his intellectually-challenged kid brother’s victimisation.
Returning to intimate resonance, the partly-autobiographical skinhead story This Is England (2006; discussed in Freedom, 30th June and 14th July 2007) more successfully conveyed modern social and political interconnectivity. Now, before the long-planned King of the Gypsies (about a bare-knuckle prize-fighter from Meadows’ hometown of Uttoxeter), Somers Town visits pastures new – geographically, anyway – exploiting cinema history with renewed confidence to widen the narrative remit. Here, sixteen year-old Tommo (Thomas Turgoose) abandons Nottingham after a miserable childhood. Cheeky likeability doesn’t prevent him from succumbing to the mean streets of London, however, and on his first night after arriving at Kings Cross station he’s beaten-up by local thugs who steal his belongings. Meanwhile introverted Polish adolescent Marek (Piotr Jagiello) spends lonely days photographing the titular square-mile between Euston and St Pancras his brickie dad Marius (Ireneusz Czop) is working overtime to help gentrify – in particular taking countless snaps of Maria (Elisa Lasowski), a French greasy-spoon waitress he has a crush on. The unlikely lads hook up and vie for her attentions in between skivvying for low-rent spiv Graham (Perry Benson), and Marek smuggles Tommo into his room unbeknownst to Marius. The arrangement goes pear-shaped when they drunkenly wreck the flat after Maria suddenly disappears back to Paris, whereupon Graham puts Tommo up and he and Marek fantasise reunion with her courtesy of Eurostar.
Despite its deceptively light touch, slender running time (71 minutes) and generally life-affirming tone, Somers Town harbours more interesting undercurrents than may be initially apparent. As usual the comic accuracy of the banter is enhanced by improvisation, so that the subtle, engaging performances render somewhat unbelievable relationships satisfying and highlight the many set-piece gags and pratfalls. Moreover, Meadows’ trademark attention to details of place and movement within neglected and transitional spaces offers crucial small measures of freedom otherwise belied by heavy constraints on possible action. But the film transcends even these worthy (if parochial) achievements by deftly incorporating moods, scenarios and developments originally deployed in a whole swathe of distinctive European social-realist codes – the viewer’s long experience of which (irrespective of awareness) prompting specific expectations that can then be played with. Yet such elements are not flaunted with knowing postmodern flash and artifice. Instead they emerge unobtrusively and organically in the characters’ trajectories through happenstance, idle choice or practical necessity – and never distort or mystify a story more salient to the world-weary disoriented DIY cynicism of this rotten new millennium than the over-simplistic clean-cut idealism of the last century’s angry young grammar-school graduates marching into the media.
So, minimal co-ordinates would include postwar Italian neo-realism’s naturalistic portraits of hard labour and even grimmer class and gender norms yielding stoic tragedies of wasted life, shading into 1950s Northern UK kitchen-sink protagonists impotently banging heads against the brick walls of an unjust status quo. And whereas the French New Wave’s iconic Jules et Jim et al shocked elders and betters with rebellious lifestyles, London’s Swinging Sixties dreamt of dissolving all tradition in consumer ecstasy while Polish and Czech experiments with black-and-white expressionism and surrealism were soon crushed by Stalinism. Traces of all these dimensions and levels of cultural rites of passage converge and collide here – referencing universal youthful naïvete morphing into adult disillusionment as well as the hopes and fears of 20th century social democracy’s disappointed children, and perhaps also Shane Meadows’ own directorial maturity in wielding such weighty themes in a whimsically subversive response to Eurostar’s tainted shilling commissioning a cool art-film to feed corporate vanity. As for the prognosis – for the likes of Tommo and Marek, and the rest of us – it may be naïve to predict we won’t get fooled again. But if false promises of consumerism are capitalism’s carrot, its stick is the engineered destruction of lifeworlds – and Somers Town sensibly suspends any resolution even when the die is decisively cast in the real location. Nevertheless the film clearly proffers horizontal rather than upward mobility, and collective as opposed to individual engagement, as the only realistically productive options.
Film review published in Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 19, October 2008.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: