Film Weekly takes a dip in London River with Brenda Blethyn
Jason Solomons talks to Brenda Blethyn and Rachid Bouchareb about their film set in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings. Plus, reviews of Twilight: Eclipse and Leaving, and an investigation into film programming at music festivals
“The tale of a British mother and a Malian father searching for their children after the 7/7 bombings is subtle but affecting”
“London River ..is a quiet, understated picture, an exercise in what might be called stoical realism”
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“A pair of superb yet humble performances give London River its reason for being’”
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“Sotigui and Brenda improvised many of their tender mismatched moments, and there is a dignity and truth to both their performances that left much of the audience in tears at the London screening”
“There is a whiff of didacticism, but in the end the subjects of loving, losing – and living on afterwards – are handled with extreme dignity, and has produced an incredibly moving document of the time”
Ovation for Blethyn in London River
By Derek Malcolm
She’s arrived in London from Guernsey, worried about a daughter who won’t answer the phone. He’s come from Franceto find a son he hasn’t seen since the boy was six in Africa. It is the time of the terrorist attack on London’s Undergound and buses, and the middle-aged English woman (Brenda Blethyn) and the elderly African (Sotigui Kouyate) have every reason to be worried. But they hardly take to each other. Pitched into a multiracial society far from the calmer, and whiter, waters of the Channel Isles, the woman discovers her daughter has been living with his son. And learning Arabic.
“The place is swarming with Muslims!” she complains. The African keeps his distance but knows they are in this together.
That’s the plot of French Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb’s small-scale but beautifully detailed film, and it contains a performance from Blethyn as the weepie, anxious mother that won her an ovation after the festival screening. She is magnificent, seeming to react rather than act and, without a false or sentimental note, managing to make us sympathise with her puzzled and anxious character. The dignified Kouyate is splendid, too, adding his own perfectly pitched performance.
Bouchareb’s portrait of London after the terrorist attacks is startlingly accurate and there’s a genuine feel for all of the players. Ken Loach couldn’t have done much better. This is a film no Londoner should miss: humane, stunningly acted, it will be a gross injustice if it doesn’t win a prize from Tilda Swinton’s Berlin jury.
Brenda Blethyn tells John Hiscock why she feels so proud of London River, a low-budget film set in the aftermath of the July 7 2005 London bombings.
Brenda Blethyn is recalling the time, many years ago, when she was appearing at the National Theatre in London and was hurrying to meet her mother one day.
She was recognised in the street and surrounded by a group of students who wanted to talk and have their photographs taken with her. When she finally got away she was late for her mother. “I said, 'I’m ever so sorry I’m late, mum,’ and I told her what had happened. She said, 'Oh, that’s nice, dear. Who did they think you were?’”
She burst into laughter as she told the story, as she probably has done many times before. It typifies the actress’s down-to-earth normality and total absence of any star pretensions, despite two Oscar nominations and many critics’ awards.
We met in a crowded Italian restaurant during the Toronto Film Festival in the fashionable Yorkville area of the city and talked over the lunchtime noise. Brenda had a busy schedule and already that morning had attended a press conference and then been whisked on to a reception given by the UK Film Council. She was elegantly dressed in a dark suit with a silver brooch and her reddish-brown hair was cut short. She looked at least a decade younger than her 64 years. (“I’m blessed to have good skin, I drink a lot of water and I moisturise a lot but I don’t sunbathe so that’s why my skin stays nice,” she explained.) “Nice” is a word she uses a lot and it could equally well be applied to her; although she is childless she has an endearing Everymum way about her that makes her so easy and comfortable to talk with.
She had flown in the day before and seemed genuinely surprised and delighted that she had been met by a car and driver and had been booked into “a nice” hotel. She was due to spend three days in Toronto before flying back to London for a day and then moving on to Paris, all in the cause of promoting London River, in which she gives a powerful and moving performance as a woman searching for her daughter in the aftermath of the July 7 2005 London bombings.
London River, which was screened at the London Film Festival last year, is due to be released next month and Blethyn is championing it alone because the director, the Algerian Rachid Bouchareb, speaks little English.
Her co-star, the African actor Sotigui Kouyate, who portrays a Muslim father looking for his missing son, won the Silver Bear Award for best actor at the Berlin festival but died in April, aged 73. “His generosity and warmth were quite overwhelming,” she said. “He was such a lovely, lovely man and his English was probably worse than my French, which isn’t good by any means. But we found a way to communicate.”
Brenda had to learn French for the role as her character lives in Guernsey and can only communicate in that language with Kouyate’s Muslim, whom she initially views with great suspicion when they meet in London looking for their children.
“I’m so proud of this film, I really am,” she said. “Everybody was making sacrifices to get it made. I was at the Telluride film festival and a lady hugged me and hung on to me saying she lost her daughter 12 years ago. She said she loved the movie, I don’t know why, but she did, and I didn’t pry into how she had lost her daughter, but it was kind of humbling.” Initially, when her agent told her Rachid Bouchareb wanted to meet her to talk about making a film that takes place at the time of the London bombings, in which 56 people were killed and 700 injured, she was reluctant to go.
“I was bit nervous of it, to tell the truth,” she said. “The event was still quite recent and if it was going to be a sensationalist movie I wasn’t at all interested. But I thought I’d go and meet him anyway and of course I found that wasn’t the case at all. He was passionate about the idea of bringing two people of different religions and different cultures from different ends of the earth together to see how they interact and to discover their similarities rather than their differences.”
As usual with Brenda Blethyn’s films, London River was made on a low budget and she received very little money for it. The “biggest” film she has made, she thinks, is probably Atonement and the nearest she has come to a Hollywood movie is Pride And Prejudice, which was a Universal production.
“It’s not because I don’t want to make Hollywood movies, it’s just that I’ve never been asked,” she laughed.
She and her companion of 35 years, Michael Mayhew, the art director at the National Theatre, have homes in South East London and in Ramsgate, where Brenda was born the youngest of nine children into a poor working class family.
“Growing up just after the war, we had nothing,” she said. “Sometimes I didn’t have shoes. As kids there wasn’t any television and often we didn’t have a radio because mum couldn’t afford to pay the electricity bill and it was disconnected, but we’d make our own fun. “ The house was demolished long ago and the home she has now overlooks Ramsgate’s harbour. “Every summer there’d be a carnival parade through the town and my dad used to drive one of the floats that went past the house,” she said. “I have a mental image of my dad going by on that float and my mum standing on the pavement making fun of him.” She looked at my scribbled shorthand notes. “Is that Pitman’s? I did Pitman’s, too. I worked for British Rail as a secretary for ten years and I got into acting by default,” She was persuaded by friends to join an amateur dramatic group, discovered she enjoyed the camaraderie and moved on to the National Theatre for three years before making her screen debut in the 1980 television play Grown Ups. It was directed by Mike Leigh who, 16 years later, directed her to an Oscar nomination in Secrets and Lies. She won her second nomination for Little Voice and has appeared in almost 50 films.
She was last on screen in the action thriller Dead Man Running and last year she returned to the stage in Manchester in Edna O’Brien’s new play Haunted. She will soon be seen starring in an ITV murder mystery series, Hidden Depths, in which she plays a lonely detective inspector investigating the deaths of two young people found floating in water.
We have plenty more to talk about but a publicist, hired to look after her, is hovering. She has a screening to attend, another interview to do and a party to go to.
She looked at me and shrugged helplessly as she got up to go, leaving her unfinished glass of wine on the table.
“I just do what I’m told and go where I’m taken,” she said.
One had the feeling she was quite enjoying the experience.
London River explores prejudice as a Muslim father and a Christian mother search for their children
By Mark Brown in Berlin
A moving story of a Muslim father and a Christian mother searching for their children in the aftermath of London's 7 July bombings has premiered at the Berlin film festival.
London River is the latest film from Rachid Bouchareb, the quietly-spoken French-Algerian director whose last film Days of Glory – about four North Africans fighting for the French army during the second world war – impressed critics and was nominated for an Oscar.
This film, which was met with applause after its first screening, is much smaller in scale but takes on a big topic. Brenda Blethyn plays a very English widow who travels from her lovely house on Guernsey to the rather less lovely Finsbury Park flat where her daughter Jane lives.
At the same time a Muslim man, played by the Malian actor Sotigui Kouyate, travels from France looking for his son. It turns out the children were lovers and both were learning Arabic at the local mosque. The world's apart strangers realise they are much closer than they thought.
Bouchareb admitted the film could have been set after a number of terrorist attacks but he chose 7 July because he wanted Blethyn involved. "I had to wait a year for her and if I'd have had to wait two years I would."
Indeed it is Blethyn's performance that stands out. Her character is a woman who does not realise how prejudiced she is. "This place is absolutely crawling with Muslims," she says of north London at one stage.
Blethyn today said her character was arriving in a place that was alien to her. "She gets paranoid and suspicious and she wants to know the truth. I think the film is daring and it is good because of that.
It touches on the subject of prejudice."
Blethyn said the biggest challenge had been learning French for the role.
"Because I learned it so quickly the tragedy is that you forget it so quickly."