The new thriller "London to Brighton" revolves around a group of British lowlifes, of the sort that swarm England's seamy underbelly — or at least its recent cinema. But writer-director Paul Andrew Williams's film, adapted from his 2001 short film "Royalty," is actually a departure from the recent slew of cool-Brit crime capers, which some critics have disdainfully dubbed "mockney." In fact, Mr. Williams's assured feature debut is more in line with the gritty realism of Mike Hodges, Ken Loach, and Mike Leigh. His film vividly captures the desperation that drives these East Enders to betray their consciences, even if it deserts them in the end.
The opening scene finds a puffy-eyed woman and a tearful young girl storming into a graffiti-plastered public restroom at 3 a.m. Kelly (Lorraine Stanley) leaves the 12-year-old Joanne (Georgia Groome) locked in the stall while she heads out to fetch food, and also to turn a trick on the street to raise train fare to Brighton. They are running away from Derek (Johnny Harris), a lowly pimp whose own life may be in jeopardy if he fails to locate them. The film crosscuts between the chase and successive flashbacks that slowly reveal details of a fateful night when Derek promised to deliver an underage prostitute to a powerful client and ordered Kelly to search for a random runaway for the job. The early scenes thrust the viewer right into the middle of the action without any information or context. Yet they are quite riveting, thanks in part to the fly-on-the-wall immediacy of the hand-held cinematography and the simple but dramatic mechanics of the cat-and-mouse pursuit. It's the kind of all-too-real drama involving total strangers that one might stumble upon during a subway ride, the type of interlude that creates what is literally and figuratively a captive audience — you pretend to look away but you can't stop watching. The film keeps viewers interested by dangling a couple of mysteries: What will happen to the protagonists, and what did they do in the first place to land themselves in this grim predicament?
In the end, "London to Brighton," which opens today at Cinema Village, is an action flick, not a character study, though its arty social-drama façade certainly makes it unconventional. Several social issues are on display, and though Mr. Williams admirably treats them as facts of life rather than exploiting them to elicit liberal guilt, he could offer more commentary, given such weighty subjects.
The enticing opening makes it easy to become invested in the protagonists, but before long it becomes clear that we won't get to know them any better than we do in the beginning. "London to Brighton" works right up to the climactic confrontation, where things play out too conveniently and not too convincingly. It's a flaw that compromises the grittiness the film has so authentically established from the outset. But imperfections aside, Mr. Williams demonstrates tremendous promise as a genre flick director and as the heir apparent to the British national cinema. Perhaps the real cliffhanger is seeing what he does next.