London to Brighton (**)
There is a long tradition of grit in British narrative art, and even the most provocative and moving examples of this—from Dickens to Orwell to such realist filmmakers as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh—have a whiff of upper-middle-class sensationalism about them. London to Brighton has (unlike, say, the recent Red Road) none of Brit grit’s saving graces and most of its faults: it may be involving in parts, but it always feels smarmy and exploitative. It is just not successful enough as a film to justify the kinds of suffering it so insistently shoves in its audiences’ faces.
London to Brighton opens in a seedy loo at King’s Cross station. A woman and a preteen appear to be hiding from some thugs who have beaten them up. The woman is prostitute Kelly (Lorraine Stanley), a blowsy lass in the Dora Bryan–Brenda Blethyn tradition; the girl is Joanne (Georgia Groome), a runaway who has fallen into a clumsy trap set up by Kelly and her oafish pimp Derek (Johnny Harris) to deliver Joanne to a slimy crime boss for sex. The film goes back and forth between the stories of how Kelly and Joanne ended up at King’s Cross, and their flight to Brighton afterwards.
Most everything about London to Brighton is formulaic. Kelly has the proverbial heart of gold, Joanne bringing out her maternal side; Derek’s two main attempts to avenge Kelly’s escape are so plans-gone-horribly-wrong that even Guy Ritchie would balk. But the thing that truly spoils (aside from two or three plainer-than-day plot holes) is director-writer Paul Andrew Williams’s fondness for the morally curdled moment meant to bloom into sympathy. One gripping sequence shows Kelly and Joanne at an arcade after Kelly has turned a trick; Joanne is trying to grab a teddy bear with a mechanized claw and pleads with Kelly to give her more money to complete the task. Kelly does, enough for two teddy bears in fact, and later on Joanne asks her what she wants to name her bear. She says, “Four quid eighty.” Is this supposed to demonstrate Kelly’s stupidity (giving away money that she clearly needs, that she has gotten with her body) or her victimization? Either way, it’s enough to make London to Brighton seem irredeemably despicable.
London to Brighton is now playing at the Carlton (20 Carlton St.).”