Director: Derrick Borte
Cast: Daniel Huttlestone, Dougray Scott, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Natascha McElhone, Tom Hughes
Watch London Town online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW TV / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Directed by Derrick Borte, London Town is set during the summer of 1978 and stars Daniel Huttlestone (Into the Woods) as Shay Baker, a 15 year old who lives with his piano-shop-owner-slash-taxi-driver father, Nick (Dougray Scott), and little sister Alice (a scene-stealing Anya McKenna-Bruce), after their mother, Sandrine (Natascha McElhone), abandoned her family to live in a punk squat and chase a musical career in London. When Nick is hospitalised due to a nasty accident with a piano, Shay finds himself having to support the family, which he does by illegally diving his father’s cab, dressed as a woman so that he looks older.
At the same time, Shay meets and falls for street smart, slightly older Vivian (Nell Williams), who takes him under her wing and introduces him to the punk rock scene and the music of The Clash. Through Vivian, Shay gains a measure of independence, attending his first punk gig and experiencing his first clash with police during a skinhead riot, alongside more traditional rites-of-passage activities. At the same time, Shay has a series of chance encounters with Clash frontman Joe Strummer (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and hits upon an idea to save his family from bankruptcy.
London Town is immensely frustrating, because it’s essentially half a really good film and half a really bad one. Rhys Meyers is terrific as Strummer (you know you’re in trouble when Jonathan Rhys Meyers is the best thing about your movie), doing his own singing and delivering an impressive imitation of the Clash frontman that frankly deserves its own biopic. There’s also a punk-tastic soundtrack and Borte makes strong use of archive footage and some solid production design work to effectively recreate the period, inducing some heavy nostalgia in the process. (The film has some uncomfortable present-day resonance too, with its scenes of the National Front on the rise and angry white men spouting anti-immigration rhetoric on street corners, all of which feels like it’s saying: “See how far we’ve come?”)
Less successfully, the film is also an unabashed fantasy, which tries to have it both ways with Strummer, painting him simultaneously as an important political voice, speaking up for the down-trodden, and a magical figure, who becomes part big brother and part fairy godmother to a young boy he meets in the back of a taxi cab.
However, the biggest problem is that the script refuses to engage with its intriguing backdrop on any meaningful level, leaving the central boy-attempts-to-save-family plot as a generic, flatly delivered story that could take place anywhere. Moreover, other than dying his hair (and even that is solely to impress Vivian), Shay isn’t remotely changed by his brushes with punk history and nothing that happens to him seems to leave any kind of lasting impression. Even the weirdness of Shay having to dress as a woman to drive his father’s cab is treated matter-of-factly by the script.
It’s also fair to say that Huttlestone’s performance isn’t especially compelling, although he’s not helped by the writing, which paints the character as peculiarly passive and never gives him anything really interesting to do. To add insult to injury, there’s a scene where he suddenly reveals some hitherto undisclosed musical ability and you get a tantalising glimpse of the film this could have been. Ultimately, this is by no means unwatchable, thanks to high production values and Rhys Meyers’ noteworthy, if under-used performance, but it’s let down by an oddly timid script that ignores its promising set-up in favour of a boringly generic plot.
London Town is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 7-day free trial.
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