If recent movies are to be believed, the English south-east coast is the new Wild West, a place of loneliness and lawlessness that faces the winds off the Channel with the resignation of an old sailor about to take a flogging. Here, every season is off-season. Pawel Pawlikowski's Last Resort headed up this new wave, chronicling the plight of asylum seekers in Margate. The same town and subject were revisited by Jan Dunn's Gypo last month, which also saw Thomas Clay's The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, set down the coast in Newhaven, where lowering skies survey the collapse of the fishing industry and the rise of Asbo-courting youth.
Brighton has long been the capital of south-coast sleaze, and the lost resort that repelled and attracted English novelists - Gissing, Patrick Hamilton, Graham Greene - is now being rediscovered by film-makers. Keith Waterhouse once said of Brighton that it looked like a town that was helping the police with their enquiries. In Paul Andrew Williams's astonishing debut London to Brighton, it looks like a town that's spent a night in the cells. The clanking gaudiness of the amusement arcades and the wind-whipped seafront have seldom looked so desolate, yet for two girls on the run Brighton presents a bolt hole from the terrifying night they've just had in London.
They are Kelly (Lorraine Stanley), a prostitute, and Joanne (Georgia Groome), an 11-year-old runaway, both of them in a state of shock; the latter's face is a mask of smeared lipstick and tears, while the former has a black eye that's swollen like a rotten aubergine. The circumstances of their sudden companionship could hardly be more depressing: Kelly, on orders from her toerag pimp Derek (Johnny Harris), had gone out to find an underage girl for a wealthy client, and Joanne just happened to be skulking around the embankment at Waterloo. "You go and play with him and I'll give you a hundred quid," Derek tells the girl, who's soon revealed to be far more innocent than her procurers suspected: you can tell this by the way they can't quite look one another in the eye. Kelly accompanies Joanne to the mansion of the client, from which point the evening goes from bad to worse, though its harrowing detail is withheld until a late sequence of flashbacks.
The artfulness of the structure is but one aspect of the film's tremendous self-confidence. Williams, a 33-year-old director with a background in pop promos and short films, seems to know exactly what movie he wants to make, and refuses to betray it by straining for effects. His portrait of criminal-class London isn't the exaggerated one of colourful geezers and garrulous mockney dialogue; it's a resolutely downbeat world of poky caffs and boarded-up shopfronts, the sort of places you'd prefer to see through the window of a speeding car. Derek has no suavity as a villain - he's a shaven-headed thug who pimps women - and the room he works out of is about as far from the "glamour" of crime as you could get. (One lovely humdrum touch: just after cajoling one of his girls into a client's bedroom, he sits down to eat a bowl of cereal). Harris's superb performance conveys not just menace but sadness: Derek knows he lives in squalor, and feels the shame of it when two goons from higher up the underworld pecking order arrive at his flat and look around in disgust. It's like a rat turning up its nose at a skunk.
Williams gets a second outstanding performance from Stanley as Kelly, a hard-as-nails whore who nevertheless finds herself playing the protective older sister to the young waif whose life she has jeopardised. With her bottle-blond hair scraped back into a Croydon face-lift and her one undamaged eye a Cyclopean beam of suspicion and fear, she still has to grind out enough money on the Brighton backstreets to help buy Joanne a train ticket to her grandmother's, and safety; but can she make atonement before Derek tracks her down and lets a murderous gang boss (Sam Spruell) take his revenge? Stanley is wondrously good as a woman discover- ing her own humanity in the most vicious straits, and not once does Williams go soft on her: even when we see the girls finish their coffee and watch the wind blowing their empty paper cups along the promenade, he cuts away before the symbolism becomes overbearing.
Economy is this film's guiding principle, and not just in terms of its laconic dialogue and tight editing. The remarkable fact of London to Brighton is that it was made on a budget of £80,000, roughly what a studio film would spend on the crew's tea and bacon sarnies. Williams, after an unrewarding stint in Hollywood, wrote his script over a weekend, borrowed the money from private investors and shot it over 19 days, using friends' houses and locations that mostly cost nothing. It's a tribute to his enterprise and crew that it looks absolutely professional, and stands as a reminder that, however difficult it may be to raise money, the most precious commodities of all are talent and perseverance. We are certainly the beneficiaries here.
Engrossing in its study of exploitation and near-heartstopping in its tension, this is a movie out of the top drawer, with performances so intense they almost burst from the screen. The Brighton Tourist Board might demur, but everybody else should stand and applaud it.
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