thu 18/07/2024

Small Axe: Education, BBC One review - domestic drama concludes groundbreaking film series with quiet power | reviews, news & interviews

Small Axe: Education, BBC One review - domestic drama concludes groundbreaking film series with quiet power

Small Axe: Education, BBC One review - domestic drama concludes groundbreaking film series with quiet power

Systematic prejudice in the 1970s school system gives emotional punch to Steve McQueen's finale

Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy), left, faces up to reading issues and institutional racismWill Robson-Scott

The fifth and final film in the Small Axe series is titled Education.

At first, it appears this refers to the education of the central character, 12-year-old London boy Kingsley Smith, impressively played by Kenyah Sandy, who’s transferred to a disgraceful “School for the Educationally Subnormal” after being disruptive. However, by the end of the 63-minute drama, it becomes clear the education in question is as much that of his overworked family, who slowly wake up to what’s going on under their noses.

The film riffs on McQueen’s own youth. He was put in a “special class” at school and, like Kingsley, faced great difficulties with reading. However, Education goes further back than its director’s history, being set in shabby outer London as the Sixties turn into the Seventies. The camera revels in drab period detail, from the tepid green wallpaper in the Smith family’s semi-detached to the (anachronistic!) appearance of Roobarb and Custard on television, to Kingsley’s Shredded Wheat breakfast, left half-eaten as he rushes of to school. It also musters a Britain where casual and institutional racism is depressingly innate, with Kingsley helpless amongst it.

In many ways Education was akin to the second Small Axe film, Lovers Rock. It was not a big, far-reaching story, in the way McQueen’s recent historical narratives have been. It dealt with the same issues in semi-fictional microcosm, portraying a family resisting and then accepting unpalatable truths, the everyday mundanity of their family life emphasised by those patented, intrusive, one-angle camera shots that go on and on and on.

There was a sequence where a drab polar neck-jumpered hippy teacher strums a punishingly long, badly sung version of “House of the Rising Sun” to a class of miserable kids wilting with boredom. It was a bleak but perfect counterpoint to the much-hailed sequence in Lovers Rock where McQueen simply refuses to cut as the crowd endlessly sing Janet Kay’s “Silly Games" acapella and stamp the floor at a party. But where that film was a warm, if edgy, celebration of community, Education had slow-burning socio-political bite.

Kingsley’s mum Agnes (Sharlene Whyte) was an exhausted, irritable nurse, his older teen sister Stephanie (Tamara Lawrance) a caring high-achiever who dreams of a career in fashion, and his dad (Daniel Francis) an unlettered working man, rarely present. Agnes was an initially fearsome figure whom Kingsley was understandably wary of. At one point she exploded at him for the trouble he’s caused, as he lies drawing in his bedroom. The resulting tears, as he curls up in his blue-striped pyjamas, have a bitter poignancy.

The story hinged on the effect education campaigners Hazel Lewis (Naomi Ackie) and Lydia Thomas (Josette Simon) slowly have on Agnes and, thereby, on the family as a whole. Agnes is certainly not immediately accepting of what they have to say but trust is built. It is, eventually, an optimistic film, despite the wretched unhappiness along the way, and therefore a suitable closer for this season of films.

Finally, it was the very intimacy of Education that was so convincing. Kingsley’s dreams of being an astronaut were woven into things – an effective artistic allegory that opened and closed the film – but the true strength here lay in the gradual awakening of the Smith family and its results. These turned minor domestic events into climactic moments that proved unexpectedly moving.


The actress playing Lydia Thomas is Josette Simon (not Josette Thomas as it says in this review)

Thank you, Lara. Typo. Unacceptable but now corrected.

I found the House of the Rising Sun sequence particularly poignant as it finishes with the teacher saying it was written by The Animals when in fact it is a traditional song with a long history but the first singer is likely to have been a black musician Clarence Ashley. So the contribution of black culture goes unrecognised.once again.

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