by Peter Byrne
London to Brighton (UK 2006), director and writer, Paul Andrew Williams. Color. 85 minutes.
(Swans - February 12, 2007) In his first film, Paul Andrew Williams cuts back to the core of the British realist tradition, stripping away the recent excrescences of romantic politicizing of the Ken Loach variety. Kelly (Lorraine Stanley) at twenty-five is a plain-looking whore in a pathetic miniskirt. She works in her pimp Derek's strictly utilitarian London knocking-shop. Derek (Johnny Harris) has no redeeming qualities. He's brutal and cowardly, a middle link in a vile chain, submitting to crude power from above and dispensing it below. His line of talk to his "girls" is a mix of threatened violence and reptilian cajoling. It chills the blood to hear him tell one of his frightened wards who has hesitated to accept a particularly obscene task that he and she have a great future together if she just goes into that room. For the prostitution Williams portrays hasn't the least glint of glamour about it. To call it sordid would be much too weak a description. The writer-director leaves out only the dimension of drugs. (Five British young women prostitutes recently murdered by the same killer were all crack cocaine addicts.)
The Boss (Sam Spruell) who owns Derek is just as brutal but more efficient. He demands that Derek supply an under-aged virgin for the delights of yet a more exalted gangland figure. This Mr. Big (Alexander Morton) happens to be the Boss' father. Derek can only shift the pressure on to someone else and chooses Kelly. She's not exactly a philanthropist: No whores with hearts of gold in this script. All the same, Kelly demurs. The "girls" regularly refuse -- it's part of their routine -- only then to yield to their muscle-flexing protector. Kelly says, though, that she won't entrap an "innocent." Derek tells her to pick up a runaway who is going to fall victim to someone "anyway."
Kelly has no trouble finding an adolescent collecting "spare change" in central London at 3 a.m. The conversation between Kelly, Derek, and Joanne (Georgia Groome, thirteen when filming) in a grungy all night café makes unforgettable cinema. Eleven, posing as fifteen, Joanne is on the run from an abusive father. Derek asks if she's a virgin. Joanne, not even sure of what he means, says of course not. Then, says Derek, knowing she's lying, we can do business, as you've nothing to lose. Here Lorraine Stanley as Kelly has a great wordless moment. Listening to Derek reel in the child, Kelly can't help but want him to succeed. At the same time she relives the pain of another girl's ruin.
The job of delivering the prey, after applying cosmetics like gift-wrapping, also falls to Kelly. Mr. Big, who lives in luxury, gives Kelly a vodka and coke and takes Joanne upstairs. Stanley's acting without words impresses again. She sits alone gulping her drink, her job done, but unable not to twist her face at the horror of being a whore and launching another.
When Joanne begins to scream, Kelly can't sit still and rushes upstairs. Mr. Big is in the midst of a perverse ritual. He's tied Joanne down and flourishes a knife. Kelly manages to untie the girl, but in the process gets her own face terribly battered by Mr. Big. Joanne, however, has got hold of the knife, which though only ritualistic is plenty sharp. She stabs Mr. Big a couple of times in what polite writers used to call the "lower stomach" and which is soon screened by a flow of blood.
The two women, very much a mother and daughter team now, hurry to Waterloo Station. The various London public spaces and facilities the tourist marvels at by day are shown by Williams to have another set of uses in the small hours. Kelly takes a few minutes to turn a trick in the shadows for ticket money and the pair entrain for Brighton.
The trip at dawn and subsequent walk on the beach brings the child out in Joanne as she delights in the green fields and gray sea. Sentimentality, facile contrast? Not really. For we have to be reminded that despite the events of the night Joanne is in fact still a child. Kelly realizes this; hence her mothering. Williams, moreover, keeps sentiment in check by a simple ruse. He never pretties up Kelly's closed eye and smashed face that, to our surprise, doesn't prevent her from turning more tricks along the way for traveling expenses. The johns never object though they demand discounts and various perks.
Where does a prostitute on the run go for shelter? To other prostitutes, not because of any selfless solidarity, but because it's hard to turn down a fellow worker face to face. Kelly takes Joanne to the apartment of a colleague, a drowsy provincial informal cathouse. The atmosphere shows another aspect of the game. A greedy-eyed small-town pimp can't stop staring at Joanne as the company slumps in a marijuana stupor before a TV screen.
Meanwhile, Derek back in London has had his leg razor-slashed by the Boss and told to find the fugitives or be killed. Vowing vengeance on all concerned, the humiliated Derek goes to a friend to borrow a sawed-off shotgun. The friend lends him the weapon reluctantly since it belongs to his feared father who will "go mental" if he finds out. Then it takes Derek only a few words on his phone to trace Kelly and Joanne to the Brighton apartment. Just as Kelly betrayed Joanne, the other whores betray Kelly. There's no room for heroism at the bottom end of the chain.
Derek takes his repossessed merchandise, like so much meat for delivery, to a meeting with the Boss. The latter dispossesses Derek of the shotgun with ease. The coward doesn't vent anger on the strong, but only on the weak, and Johnny Harris, in a cold sweat, makes the point admirably. But the Boss -- another "in the meantime" -- has previously answered his father's desperate phone call and gone to watch passively as Mr. Big bled to death. Now he interrogates Joanne to find out exactly what happened, handing her cigarettes and only interrupting his questions to explain why he himself doesn't smoke. As a child he stole a cigarette from his father and got caught. His punishment was to eat the remaining cigarettes, and the package, including the tinfoil. After this stroll down memory lane and Joanne's confession, the Boss decides someone has to pay for the death of his father, the sadistic Mr. Big. He kills Derek and his ineffectual sidekick, an immigrant who obviously chose the wrong field for social advancement. Kelly and Joanne are let go while we watch the Boss light up his first cigarette since his pre-teen transgression. Happy ending? Kelly takes the runaway to her grandmother in the country where the child is welcomed. But as a seasoned and battered hooker at twenty-five, there's no place for Kelly but the London streets where she returns, half-blind but cheerful, doubtless to be the willing victim of another Derek.
Such is the story that Paul Andrew Williams tells, though in a different way. He begins with the flight to Brighton and fills in with flashbacks. These are inserted smoothly enough but left this reviewer unconvinced that a strict chronological account wouldn't have been more powerful. The paltry mysteries created by jumbling the time scheme add nothing of weight to a lowlife portrait that owes its force to avoiding any sheen or shred of hard-boiled romanticism. A devil's advocate might even add that the story hardly needs the stabbing to death in the genitals of Mr. Big by an eleven-year-old girl, or the cute psychologizing behind the Boss' first cigarette in thirty years. The fact that a child is involved at all and that a true picture of the play of forces in prostitution emerges is quite enough for us to chew over. We could even do without the gunplay. Americans will find a supplement of information in the Las Vegas Sun's end of year exposé of teenage prostitution that has apparently increased six-fold there since the beginning of the decade.
Some critics have invoked John Cassavetes to suggest the flavor of London to Brighton. Perhaps a better notion of Williams's sensibility lies in the fact that his story speaks of three cruel fathers and the only hints of mercy proceed from baffled maternal sentiments. However, it is true that the hand-held camera and the screen filled by one face and then another recall the master who gave us Shadows (1959). Several times, the tremor of emotion across a face brings us up sharp with the feeling that here is truth we have never seen before. Of course realism is a slippery concept, perhaps never really to be defined. Yet we know what Bernard Shaw meant when he said that an art form in decadence can only right itself by returning to realism. Ironically, Williams has done just that with help from the British Film Council and money from the National Lottery. This truly independent film cost only $150,000. Subsidy here has paid dividends in art. Let's hope some equally enlightened distributor brings this gem across the Atlantic.
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