Monday 14 December 2020

Breaking sad: "County Lines"

Crime rarely pays and is frequently deadly, but for a while there - even if just a brief while - it can seem as exciting as hell, a tantalising break from the norm. We meet Tyler (Conrad Khan), the 14-year-old protagonist of Henry Blake's debut feature County Lines, as he slopes aimlessly round the corridors of his inner-city London school, underengaged when he's not kicking off. It's not that he's an entirely bad kid: he's protective of his younger sister Aliyah (Tabitha Milne-Price) and has interests beyond the schoolgates, and in a way every decision we watch him make in the film is made to shore up his slightly lopsided household. It's just that no-one's really shown any interest in him. His mother Toni (Ashley Madekwe) has fallen out of synch with her offspring, a consequence of having to work nights; his teachers already have their hands full trying to stop pitched warfare breaking out in underfunded, overpopulated classrooms. Enter Simon (Harris Dickinson), an older boy who rescues Tyler from some kebab-house bullies, and later re-emerges as a reassuring constant on the streets around our boy's home - albeit the sidestreets, and then mostly after dark. Blake's research into the county-lines phenomenon manifests on screen as a heightened level of context: he shows us how easily Tyler's head might be turned, so that when Simon finally makes him a questionable job offer - after a shopping trip that feels horribly like grooming of a sort - it doesn't seem implausible that the youngster takes him up on it. We're almost as trapped within this world as Tyler is, so we see why he might mistake a well-paying dead end - cross-country drug-smuggling - for a viable way out.

From the off, it's good thriller material, in that it's tied up with movement, and rapidly puts its protagonist in places we don't really want a child to be. The film's theme is the wrong form of mobility - a way of life that might only seem like mobility to someone impressionable, and then only after all other avenues have been closed down. What's notable about the direction, however, is its relative sobriety, the near-total absence of sensationalism; Blake just coolly, calmly lays this world out. First point of contact. The trains. The grim destination. That suggests a shrewd head behind the camera, because there are elements here - particularly the flophouse that serves as a drug distribution centre, with its sclerotic wallpaper and pleading junkie (Johanna Stanton, both heartrending and terrifying) - that might otherwise have played as too much, heavy-handed at best. As it is, County Lines is still quite a lot to be confronted by, but it's also just enough to remain credible, and to preserve some troubling grace notes, such as the quietly virtuosic revelation around the midpoint that Tyler is by no means alone in getting snared up with this risky, nasty business. For a first feature, Blake's shot choices are exceptionally assured: I'm thinking of the pick-up that plays out against the backdrop of the artificial pitches on which we learn Tyler has demonstrated some talent (all that potential, now badly misrouted), and a truly haunting hold on a school photo of our boy at precisely the point in the plot where the innocence it captures looks to have drained away, possibly for good. (The decision Blake took with cinematographer Sverre Sørdal to cast their interiors in elevated levels of gloom makes doubly moving the stray rays of sunlight seen sneaking into the closing minutes.) 

One of the more perverse aspects of 2020 is that just as Britain collectively prepares to shoot itself in either the foot or the head - partly as a result of a widespread lack of mobility; the only hope left at this stage may be that the resultant shock wakes up some of our dopier friends and neighbours - the national film industry has launched more forceful and promising first films than in any other year in living memory. Maybe the moment is the reason: that we've all endured so many projects advertising a country-house Britain where everybody knows their place that a small army of Morlock-movies, narratives of discontent describing the less sunny realities of Brexit Britain, was bound to rise up and push back sooner or later. (Never forget that the same cinema that generated Chariots of Fire and A Room with a View under the Thatcher government also signed off on My Beautiful Laundrette and Raining Stones.) Like Fyzal Boulifa's Lynn + Lucy, its equal at the summit of the Great British Debut stockpile of 2020, County Lines is far from easy viewing: its 90-minute running time, further sharpened by at least one jolting timeshift, induces the shock of seeing a desperate situation turn very bad very quickly. Yet it's strongly performed - particularly by Khan and Madekwe, who forever seem like people rather than punchbags, a crucial distinction within this especially rigorous form of social realism - and superbly handled by Blake. If, whether now or in years to come, you needed a reminder of the dark place Britain got itself in - and was allowed by its leaders to get itself in - in the run-up to January 1, 2021, this would be a fine place to look.

County Lines is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

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