The unprecedented events of September 11th unleashed a wave of films that dealt with every minute aspect of the attacks; the experiences of the passengers aboard one of the doomed flights (United 93); the bravery of the firemen sent in vain to rescue workers trapped in the towers (World Trade Centre); and the resulting wars of the Bush era that have now been inherited by the Obama and Cameron administrations (Hurt Locker, Battle For Haditha, Green Zone).
It is therefore somewhat puzzling that the London bombings of the 7th of July 2005 have yet to inspire anything approaching the same volume of material, maybe due to the comparatively less compelling imagery than that of New York and, more cynically, the lower body count. London is also a city cruelly accustomed to terrorism, from the decades of IRA campaigns to the increasingly fading memory of British born bomber David Copeland who successfully detonated three bombs over a period of almost as many weeks in 1999.
The arrival of London River is either long overdue or has come too late in the day to have enough emotional potency, unavoidably weighed down by the audiences’ over familiarity with the poignant recollections of survivors and victims’ families proffered at the time.
The minimalist premise concerns widowed mother Elisabeth (Brenda Blethyn) and estranged father Ousmane (Sotigui Kouyate) brought together in a frantic search for their children, both of whom went missing amidst the ensuing chaos of 7/7. We follow the pair along their endless, largely dialogue free, scenes of walking and enquiring as they desperately gather up whatever information they can to locate the pair who, it later emerges, were in a relationship at the time of the attacks.
London River attempts to dissect issues of coping in the face of adversity, grief and loss as well as, to a far lesser extent, confronting the spiralling paranoia surrounding Islam and the impact this adverse reaction has on the Muslim community, further exacerbated by the revelation of the bombers’ nationalities. Elisabeth displays typical symptoms of the passive-aggressive racism that emerged in Britain – and indeed across the world – in the wake of 9/11, unashamedly declaring her daughter’s area to be “crawling with Muslims”. Her initial assumption when learning of her daughter’s encampment with an Arab is that she must have been being converted against her will, a further reflection of Islam’s poisonous misrepresentation by both politicians and the media. However, Elisabeth’s integrity isn’t portrayed as bigoted necessarily – it is, after all, an explosive outburst at the end of an exhaustive, and unsuccessful, search for her daughter. Our own tendency to resort to prejudice during moments of pressure or heated exchanges is not perhaps so different to that of Elisabeth.
The naturalistic elements and significant details are well realised: Ousmane’s first port of call is the local Muslim community centre whilst Elisabeth seeks the guidance of an ineffectual police force, reflecting the split between cultures. London is also refreshingly spared the picture-postcard treatment normally bestowed upon it, resembling instead a metropolis acne-scarred by phone shops and disintegrating flats.
Despite positing the possibility of a relationship between Blethyn and Kouyate (Ousmane is a forester who protects endangered elms whilst they grow in abundance in her native Guernsey), there are no tidy resolutions in London River. All signs that point towards the forming of an unlikely alliance are short lived. Soon afterwards they are both seen back in their natural habitats with no other choice than to permit life to carry on despite the burden of grief they are both forced to carry.
London River succeeds as a portrait of those left to deal with the consequences of a devastating terrorist attack and the anguish of those left in a paralysed state of longing but for those averse to slow paced nuanced drama, it may not be for everyone.