Urban Hymn, 2015.
Directed by Michael Caton-Jones.
Starring Shirley Henderson, Letitia Wright, Isabella Laughland, Steven Mackintosh, and Ian Hart.
Set against a backdrop of the 2011 UK summer riots, a determined social worker encourages a young offender to develop her singing talent.
Urban Hymn is a drama certainly singing from a worthy enough song sheet. The film details the sort of youthful (and not so youthful) rage, delinquent activity and anti-social lawlessness that marked much of the UK riots of summer 2011. It aims to bring a clear sense that this sort of rage needs to be understood and the disenfranchised need to be inspired to do something more productive with their time other than looting and robbing. It’s only partially successful in this, getting bogged down by a fairly old-fashioned style of formatting and direction. Michael Caton-Jones (Rob Roy, Doc Hollywood) is an experienced director, but this picture has a fairly flat-footed delivery when, given the background matter, it could have benefited from a good deal more adrenaline.
Following Shirley Henderson’s (Bridget Jones’s Diary, T2 Trainspotting) successful sociology professor as she makes the surprising career move to becoming a juvenile worker – it is revealed exactly why later – the film concentrates on the dilemma of people who want to ‘make a difference’ and the seemingly insurmountable challenge of tackling deep-rooted social problems.
Letitia Wright is excellent as the gifted Jamie Harrison, a brilliant vocalist but someone who is easily led astray by the crowd. One of the crowd in particular who holds sway over her life is the scowling, violent bully Leanne, played with tremendous confidence and hate-filled energy by Isabella Laughland. Leanne brings all of the disrupting force to the story, and while it is interesting – and at times scary – to see her display the kind of combustible anger that she seems to have a boundless supply of, there is a feeling that is all just a little one note. We are not allowed to know exactly why she is so angry, and the sense that all youth anger is not accessible or knowable does feel like a bit of a cop out, to put it bluntly.
The stylistic mix of choir music and the rough and ready life on the streets and in juvie does not sit very comfortably, and whether this was on purpose to show class differences and the weigh-up of social backgrounds is beside the point – as a piece of filmic work it strikes a slightly odd and disjointed balance.
In any case, Urban Hymn does have some memorable and touching scenes, and it is interesting to see Billy Bragg show up detailing the sort of work he does in real life at juvenile detention centres. It is just a shame that the plot and basic structure of the film itself were not more gripping.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert W Monk is a freelance journalist and film writer.