This squib started out as a gleam in an adman's eye. The young British director Shane Meadows was hired to make a short promoting the new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras, but the film-makers decided they could parlay it into a feature – just.
At 72 minutes, it's closer to the length of the BBC's old Play for Today. Would that it had more in common. It's not the film's origins as a commercial that grate; indeed, aside from shots of the St Pancras spire and some on-train filming, Eurostar doesn't figure much. What scuppers it is a dismal lack of drama.
Having drawn a fine performance from him in This Is England, Meadows again cast young Thomas Turgoose as the lead. He plays Tomo, a teenager who's escaped misery in Nottingham and arrived in London. As evening falls, he's swigging on a can of lager when three boys descend and mug him. He's reduced to forlorn, Dickensian wandering about the streets of Somers Town, an unglamorous patch of estate housing near and King's Cross. This is not gritty realism, however; Meadows shoots in swoony black and white, lending even urban blight a romantic lustre.
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Like many a visitor before, Tomo must look for friends in the cold, inimical depths of the city. The screenplay, by Paul Fraser, makes a hamfisted effort here. Loafing in a caff, Tomo spots a Polish boy flicking through his collection of street snaps; he grabs them and legs it, hotly pursued by their owner. This is Marek (Piotr Jagiello), a soft-voiced, mild-mannered kid who befriends the scamp and smuggles him into his flat without his construction-worker father apparently noticing. We have seen father and son getting along well, so why Marek doesn't simply introduce Tomo to him remains a mystery.
But much creakier contrivances lie ahead. In the caff, a lovely French waitress, Maria (Elisa Lasowski), becomes a playful point of rivalry between the boys. If the script had any grasp of real life, this woman would have a boyfriend or husband to occupy her time; she would not spend it being wheelchaired through the streets by the two boys, no matter how fondly she regarded them.
When Maria suddenly disappears and they learn that some family crisis has called her to Paris, the boys look as though they've lost the best friend they ever had. That's when the camera starts shooting yearning looks at the Eurostar terminal: hey, it's only two hours to Paris!
Twee and ingratiating for the most part, the film does hit on a genuine seam of Dickensian comedy whenever Graham Cutler, the local wheeler-dealer, dragoons the boys into a money-making scheme. Perry Benson plays this spiv with galumphing charm, and his business ventures make Del Boy look like Richard Branson. When Tomo steals clothes from a laundrette, he finds only a lady's blouse and Rupert the Bear checked trousers to fit him. The script's line is that he looks "like a female golfer"; good, but much funnier if Cutler had said it, not Tomo. In any case, wouldn't the wide-boy have sold him an Arsenal shirt, as he did Marek? Interrogate the film too closely, and it begins to fall apart.
Meadows pushes indulgence too far. He is so devoted to the ideal of male camaraderie – boozing, joshing, bonding – that scenes ramble on. Even when the performances are strong (Paddy Considine in Dead Man's Shoes) the characters look flat. There is grace in the way he shoots, and London looks amazingly vibrant; it's a paradox of some black and white photography that it brings unexpected shades to places we thought we knew well.
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Somers Town is Meadows' first venture outside his East Midlands stamping-ground. It has its lyrical moments, but I watched most of it through splayed fingers. It's a film that wants too badly to be your friend, offering a portrait of an "unlikely" friendship that really is unlikely, because it's not well dramatised. Whether this will bother the people at Eurostar I couldn't say – Paris snatches a little cameo at the close – but it should bother anyone who claims Meadows as one of the great hopes of British film-making.
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