Urban Hymn marks the theatrical return of Scottish director Michael Caton-Jones and a rare leading role for the wonderful Shirley Henderson, a leading Scots actor. It’s appropriate then that it should have its world première at the GFT as part of the festival. It also features two young actors who take on important roles and to some extent steal the film. Michael Caton-Jones made three or four of the better UK films during the early 1990s before moving to Hollywood and working with stars like Robert de Niro, a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Bruce Willis. After a few ups and downs he made the well-received Rwanda-set Shooting Dogs in 2005 but then crashed badly with Basic Instinct 2 in 2006. Apart from TV credits he’s been away for nearly a decade and returns with a film that is familiar but slightly odd at the same time. A glowing review followed the première but I’m not so sure. There are many highly enjoyable aspects in the film but also a few puzzles. The film is written by Nick Moorcroft who is perhaps best known as the writer of the recent St. Trinians comedies, but who is promoted in the film’s publicity as writing from his own ‘drug-filled youth’ experiences. Either way he doesn’t seem to have the experience to write the social realist script the film appears to be attempting to use.
The narrative opens with footage of the 2011 riots in London and, via the usual dreadful hand-wringing speech by David Cameron on the radio, then cuts to Shirley Henderson as Kate, a middle-class woman living by the Thames in South-West London who is preparing for an interview at a residential home for children in care. She gets the job despite the doubts of the team leader (played by an abrasive Ian Hart) and soon meets Jamie (Letitia Wright) and Leanne (Isabella Laughland) the inseparable bad girls who, approaching 18, are wasting their last chances to avoid a life in custody or on the streets. Leanne is impossible but Kate latches on to Jamie’s interest in Northern Soul when she hears her singing an Etta James song in her bedroom. This in turn will lead Kate to suggest that Jamie joins the community choir that meets locally. From here on, everything proceeds almost by the book. Kate believes Jamie can be ‘saved’ but Leanne can’t cope with losing her only friend and will attempt to prise her away. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that the story will manage to end both tragically and upliftingly. I found much of this affecting (since I’m in a community choir, love Northern Soul and very much like Shirley Henderson) but I can see plenty of holes.
Choirs, singing competitions and auditions have been all over UK reality TV and in several big screen ventures in recent years and mixing the aspirational tone of these experiences with the brutal world of juvenile detention (Isabella Laughland as Ray Winstone in Scum, down to the ‘batteries in the sock’ weapon) is a novel twist that doesn’t quite work. I’m not sure if the film is attempting the kind of realism that is achieved by Ken Loach and Paul Laverty – or in slightly different terms by Shane Meadows or Clio Barnard – but it doesn’t work here. Setting the story in London also conjures up the new ‘Urban’ genre of the Kidulthood series. But then, making the specific location leafy South-West London (a very long way from the riot-torn estates in Tottenham) seems very odd – not that these problems can’t/don’t exist in Isleworth, but that there seems no connection between Jamie’s world and the streets on which the action takes place. The power of a Loach film like Sweet Sixteen is that we believe that this young man actually lives here and these events could happen. Urban Hymn harks back to an older UK genre, the ‘social problem film’ in which a liberal character representing what’s best in society attempts to solve the problem of wayward youth.
A little digging reveals that this project was initially set up immediately after the riots with Justin Kerrigan (director of Human Traffic (1999) lined up to direct and a story set in Cardiff or Bristol. I had the feeling that the film had hung around as a project. There are other oddities such as an appearance by Billy Bragg as himself (it works in the plot but feels like it belongs in another film) and the under-use of Steven Mackintosh as Kate’s husband. The production company Dashishah Global Film Productions is new and Wikipedia suggests a budget of £2 million – about double that of most UK independent films. The film has appeared at two major festivals, Toronto and Busan and is scheduled for a July 2016 release in eight territories so far, including the UK.
On the plus side, this is a drama with three female leads and if you want a feelgood narrative it will work for you – though it is not as coherent as the earlier festival film, The Violin Teacher. If, however, you want something more analytical and realist, I’d recommend Amma Asante’s A Way of Life (2004) with another Leanne and a hard-hitting story about the struggles of children in care.
A conventional crowdpleaser, The Violin Teacher has enough grit and local ‘colour’ to become an international festival favourite and an arthouse hit (in those territories that, unlike the UK, still show foreign language films). Though conventional the film is in fact inspired by a real project which has seen school students in Heliopolis, the biggest favela in São Paulo, getting the opportunity to learn how to play classical music. The film’s conventionality comes from the decision to meld this with a story about a child prodigy who hasn’t quite made it, but who rediscovers his mojo when declining income forces him to become the reluctant music teacher in said school project.
The teacher is Laerte, a rather earnest and sad-faced African-Brazilian played by Lázaro Ramos whose performance grew on me as the film proceeded. He has just blown an audition for the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (the most prestigious in South America) and the string quartet that he plays in is breaking up. He daren’t return to his parents and the rent is due on his penthouse flat. Of course, he’s not a very good teacher at first and he will have to go through a learning process to meet his students halfway bef0re he can teach them anything useful. The film’s narrative structure requires Laerte to latch on to the most gifted player, a boy who is plagued by a brutal father and held back by his loyalty to friends who run in a gang, stealing and recycling bank cards (and in turn finding themselves in hock to the criminal bosses in the favela). Inevitably that loyalty will threaten the success of the school project and will act as a challenge to Laerte. Does he feel completely committed to his students – or will he return to his own ambitions once his confidence has returned? Finally, convention requires that the school musicians must give a performance in the favela – which will be a triumph against the odds.
I make these points about conventional scripting not to diminish the film but to place it institutionally. This is a film deliberately produced to attempt to appeal to a local audience and to interest festival programmers and ultimately overseas distributors. It is from the same production company which successfully guided The Second Mother down a similar path in 2015. If the narrative structure supports the universal appeal of the teacher/student/musical performance progression, it relies on significant local research to give the scenario credibility. The film also has a bigger budget than most Brazilian films so that the city can be presented in all its diversity – with aerial photography (and ‘Scope) and a real sense that Laerte ‘crosses the bridge’ from the wealthy city centre to Heliopolis. Similarly, the budget provides for car chases and confrontations between police and favela residents. The research and budget also helped the soundtrack which includes both the classical orchestra players and several of Brazil’s leading popular music players. Co-producer on the film was Fox International, underlining the potential for overseas markets. This Variety report reveals that Fox have acquired the rights for Brazil and Portugal and the rest of Latin America.
The Violin Teacher is an enjoyable film that could do well with the right kind of distributor support. Its major weakness seems to be a failure to develop significant female roles. This doesn’t have to be a love interest for Laerte – though he does have a female friend whose role could be expanded. Rather it could mean one of the girls in the school project being allowed a lead role. Director Sérgio Machado did have Maria Adelaide Amaral, an experienced writer of telenovelas as a writing partner. Perhaps Brazilian writers could learn something from Girlhood (France 2014)? It doesn’t always have to be the boys in the favelas. This turned out to be the first of three films at GFF in which the central character takes on a job dealing with potentially ‘difficult’ young people.