London River

Two people meet in the aftermath of a terrorist attack
Sotigui Kouyaté and Brenda Blethyn
Directed by Rachid Bouchareb

The premise of Rachid Bouchareb’s new film London River is simple: as London reels from the catastrophic transit bombings of June 2005, two people are brought together by some aberrant twist of fate.

Elisabeth (played by the lovely Brenda Blethyn) comfortably lives out her retirement on a Guernsey Islands farm in England when she catches the news of the terrorist attacks. This immediately yields the question, is her London-bound daughter all right? Call after unanswered call convince Elisabeth to travel to the capital in search of her missing daughter. In the process, she’ll meet Ousmane (Malian actor Sotigui Kouyaté), who’s burdened with the same grim task: finding Ali, his own son who’s gone missing as well.

Director Rachid Bouchareb is France’s underdog filmmaker. Of Algerian descent, Bouchareb is confronted by France’s complicated relationship with his birth country. The fact that he is successful speaks to his motivation level. The premise of Bouchareb’s opus is demanding; in his films we are often confronted by despotic men who enslave and humiliate others. His most famous work to date was Days of Glory, a powerful retelling of France’s involvement in World War II as seen through the eyes of a handful of minority infantrymen, Algerian men who enlisted and fought alongside French troops (Algeria was a French colony at the time). In 2006 Days of Glory (“Indigènes”) was nominated for an Academy Award in the best foreign film category. In that film, and in London River, we get a sense of how insignificant our lives are, with only the occasional chance of a reward. Fate figures highly, but man’s overcoming adversity on his own terms is central.

As the narrative in London River unspools, real-life footage of the aftermath punctuates Elisabeth and Ousmane’s progress. Music is scarce in this film. The filmmaker relies on his characters’ performances—the cautious glances, hands briefly touching—and he’s well-served, thanks to two seasoned performers giving just the right amount of this and that.

If actor Sotigui Kouyaté, who sadly passed away last year, were to be known for only one thing it would be as a member of Peter Brook’s theatre company. Kouyaté appeared in Brook’s Mahabharata. Blethyn, one of this writer’s favorite actresses, played Grace Turner in 2007’s Atonement, appeared in Pride & Prejudice and played the estranged mother in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies (1996). Initially, Blethyn turned down appearing in London River because the memory of the tube attacks was too painful—Bouchareb had to wait for one year before she agreed. Of her role in London River, Blethyn has said “this is my best work, to date.”

In interviews, Bouchareb has talked of a random encounter in a strange town as the genesis for London River. The storyline is simple but it works, and potently so, as the elements of the film come together to strike the right notes.

Out in theatres this week (visit site for trailer and information)