tue 25/06/2024

London River | reviews, news & interviews

London River

London River

A quiet, convincing tale of not knowing in the wake of 7/7

Ignorance is not bliss: in 'London River' Sotigui Kouyaté and Brenda Blethyn play parents waiting for news after 7/7

But the theme of not knowing is by no means confined to the agony of uncertainty. Brenda Blethyn plays Elizabeth, a mother who sees the 7/7 bombings on the news and instinctively picks up the phone to check, as millions of other parents will have on that day, if her daughter is alive and well.

When no reply comes to several increasingly anxious messages, she comes to London and is gradually forced to confront the truth that she no longer has any idea who her daughter is, nor what sort of changing society she lives in.

London River is in effect a two-hander, but one in which the characters intriguingly circle each other while barely communicating. While Blethyn moves into her daughter’s flat, goes to the police, the hospital, the morgue, the railway bridge where people post pictures of the missing, it is as if she is being stalked. The father of another disappeared contacts her because he believes, from a photograph in his possession, that his son knows her daughter. Her natural inclination, when she sees that he is a tall French-speaking African man with lanky dreadlocks (Malian actor Sotigui Kouyaté, who has since died), is to contact Special Branch.

Gradually, however, she must accept a different sort of truth: that her daughter was living with a black Muslim. And not only that: they met and fell in love while taking Arabic lessons. The suspicion dawns that her daughter might in some way have fallen under the spell of extremists. “Who speaks Arabic?” Blethyn says in her confusion to the Muslim language teacher. “I don’t.”

180309135248London_River_1Meanwhile, Kouyaté’s character Ousmane is living in his own kind of ignorance. Estranged from the mother of his boy, he had no part in his upbringing. “I don't know who my son is,” he says in French. “He’s a stranger to me.” His honesty casts a brutal new light on her relationship with her own offspring. They are united, it seems, in ignorance.

They are also, it should be added, united by the convenience that while Ousmane speaks no English, Elizabeth lives in Guernsey so can talk to him in French. Nor is this quite the only contrivance introduced to align two apparently asymmetrical characters. Elizabeth has also had to bring up her daughter alone, having lost her husband in another war, the Falklands. They also both work on the land. She has a farm and rears donkeys, the beast of burden which brought the mother of Christ to Bethlehem. Ousmane is a forester who rescues diseased elms, afflicted every bit as much by an inoperable cancer as a society which has no idea how to root out extremism from the body politic.

London River is the work of Algerian director/scriptwriter Rachid Bouchareb, who has recast the city as a multi-ethnic soup. It’s a short film which goes about its devastating work quietly. Blethyn and Kouyaté make for the oddest of couples, she stumpy and bustling, he a beanpole with a walking stick, but each embodies their own kind of loneliness with utter conviction. The film has an uplifting twist, but it doesn't impede the river (which we never see) from flowing uninterrupted towards the inevitable. Ousmane is able to fall back on faith, to surrender to God’s will. Elizabeth must reflect on the words casually uttered every week in Anglican services: “Pray for those who persecute you.”

Overleaf: watch the London River trailer

"Who speaks Arabic?” Blethyn says in her confusion to the Muslim language teacher. “I don’t”

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