County Lines review: A bleak, powerful drama
Ivan Radford | On 04, Dec 2020
Director: Henry Blake
Cast: Conrad Khan, Harris Dickinson, Ashley Madekwe
Watch County Lines online in the UK: BFI Player / Curzon Home Cinema
“County lines” are two words that have increasingly crept into the news in recent years. They refer to the practice of gangs targeting teenagers and other vulnerable people to turn them into mules, ferrying drugs from cities into the rural provinces. It’s an unseen, insidious and isolating practice, one that cruelly preys on the vulnerable and ruins lives. County Lines, Henry Blake’s debut feature, shines a light on the horrifying reality of the crime with a grim intensity.
Conrad Khan stars as Tyler, a 14-year-old boy who lives with his mother (Ashley Madekwe) and younger sister. Excluded from school, he feels belittled and has no sense of direction for his future. And so when Simon (Harris Dickinson) pops on to his radar, a confident, tough and well-off older man, he becomes an inevitably appealing figure to fill the lack of fatherly role model. They cross paths in a chicken shop, when Simon steps in to defend Tyler from bullies, and while Simon may not remember the incident, it leaves an impression on Tyler – and the ensuing gratitude is all that Simon needs to take the young boy under his wing and groom him to become a runner.
Harris Dickinson is coolly brilliant as Simon, a subtly manipulative and convincingly friendly fellow who draws a clear line between him and those beneath him. Conrad Khan is equally impressive, capturing Tyler’s increasingly withdrawn presence as he becomes more entangled in Simon’s nasty schemes.
A scene where he bullies his own mum is heart-wrenchingly performed, but Blake’s script doesn’t present us with an apprentice’s rise through the ranks that the crime genre has led us to expect; Tyler’s horizons don’t get any broader, and his future doesn’t get any brighter, and the movie’s overcast coastal backdrop resiliently remains just as bleak from beginning to end. This is a grounded social-realist drama that taps into frustrated masculinity and exposes child exploitation with a brutal and bleak power.