Shane Meadows’ coming of age drama Somers Town is his most accessible and enjoyable work to date. Daniel Stephens takes a look at this future British social realism classic…
In some respects, acclaimed British director Shane Meadows’ Somers Town feels like a “quickie”, produced between other, more interesting and perhaps mainstream, projects. For instance, his most well-known film This Is England and its made-for-TV companion were released either side of this. Meanwhile, the director’s use of black and white photography and short running time (around 70 minutes), add to Somers Town’s air of low budget diversion; made to keep the creative juices flowing while more pressing matters are just around the corner. But that would certainly do a disservice to what is a nuanced character study, built upon Meadows’ now familiar interpretation of growing up in working class Britain with its culture clashes and social structures.
Somers Town is accomplished in its depiction of many of the director’s key interests. Its tale of friendship between a midland’s runaway and his new buddy, a Polish immigrant who lives with his construction worker father in a London council estate, embraces the social and cultural changes occurring in modern Britain while rooting its story in the coming-of-age of two teenage boys who search for their calling in life. It has Meadows’ distinct eye for realism both in the way he encourages performances that appear totally natural, and perhaps unscripted, and through his restrained camerawork that paints this ordinary world in black and white. There’s also that recognisable thematic darkness to proceedings, seen prominently in his previous films such as A Room For Romeo Brass and Dead Man’s Shoes. It is this that informs us that life has teeth, and that sometimes it bites back. The joy in Meadows’ films is often how his characters find their own piece of happiness within a omnipresent sense of sadness or tragedy.
In Somers Town we see one of the director’s favourite actors Thomas Turgoose as Tomo, journeying from “up north” to the city of London. Although we find out little about his home life, he appears to be escaping from something, telling a fellow passenger he has nothing to go home to. Without anywhere to stay, and no real plans for his future, he arrives in London as a teenage drifter who accepts the charity of those that will give it while sleeping rough. After a group of boys, of similar age to Tomo, beat him up and steal his belongings, he befriends young Polish immigrant Marek (Piotr Jagiello). His fellow teenager also finds himself drifting through life. Although he has a home and a little money thanks to his father’s construction job, he suffers from loneliness and has to endure his parent’s heavy drinking. These social outcasts find that they can lean on each other despite their differences and we follow as their friendship blossoms. Their council estate mini-adventure sees them, amongst other things, steal clothes from the local laundrette, do odd jobs for a local businessman, and fall in love with a beautiful French waitress.
There’s a raw intensity to Meadows’ films that is best served by Turgoose, the young actor he discovered when he gave him his debut role, aged 14, in This Is England. Of the two main characters in Somers Town, he’s the most interesting thanks to Turgoose’s natural indifference. He appears to float into roles, admittedly playing varying versions of the same bad-boy from the wrong side of the tracks, but here he’s more likeable than ever before. He still has that tendency to surprise (the moment he switches from victim to aggressor when he first meets Marik, for example) but his street urchin persona has a sense of humour beyond his years here. There’s a lovely moment when the boys realise they’ve stolen an elderly person’s washing from the laundrette leaving Tomo with no option but to wear a lady’s blouse.
If Somers Town does reveal itself to be the aforementioned “quickie” then it is in Paul Fraser’s script. The film’s conclusion feels abrupt with a misplaced epilogue that drifts from the satisfyingly feel-good to the overly sentimental. Although I liked the subplot involving the pretty French waitress (who is involved in one of the film’s best sequences when Tomo and Marik take her home in a wheelchair they’ve found), it’s a fanciful aside that feels less authentic when compared to the rest of the drama. It is an element of the film, like Marik’s relationship with his father, that feels sparse on detail and could have been helped had more attention been placed upon it. Indeed, when the film’s credits roll around the 70-minute mark you wonder if Somers Town could have benefited from a bit more meat on its bones.
But this remains a thoroughly entertaining film and one of Shane Meadows’ most accessible works. As a story of friendship between two largely penniless teenagers on a London council estate, it fittingly highlights how companionship can shield us from hardship with some delightful moments of levity amid the director’s penchant for social realism. It should also be noted that the soft, acoustic rock of Gavin Clark and Ted Barnes’ song When We Had Faces is a lovely accompaniment to this charming coming-of-age tale.