Set in the aftermath of London’s 2011 riots, Urban Hymn is a misguided attempt to shed light on our society’s neglect of the socio-economically underprivileged. Well-meaning but embarrassingly unconvincing, Nick Moorcroft’s latest film is painfully unaware of its own offensiveness and its problematic nature.
I don’t quite know what makes me angrier about this film: the fact that it’s 2016 and we’re still being fed films about a “white hero” saving disadvantaged people of colour off the streets, or the fact that this film completely belittles the seriousness of the 2011 riots through a saccharine and utterly skewed view of it. Either way, I’m baffled that this film was not a direct-to-DVD release or indeed relegated to the Lifetime Movie channel.
Urban Hymn’s story focuses on young offender and orphan Jamie Harrison (Letitia Wright), whose time at the Alpha House children’s care home is soon coming to an end as she nears her 18th birthday. Jamie’s best friend Leanne (Isabella Laughland) is her hard-as-nails, crack-smoking, partner in crime and the two of them are responsible for wreaking havoc both in London’s streets as well as in the care home. Their mutual contempt for the staff at Alpha House has earned them both a reputation for being lost causes, and it is assumed by all the staff that their futures will be behind bars. That is, until Kate (Shirley Henderson) joins the Alpha House team as a care worker and takes on Jamie as her special assignment. After hearing Jamie belting out Etta James in her room, Kate becomes determined to help the young girl achieve a more fulfilling path than the one she’s on, and invites her to join her painfully middle-class choir group. However, as Jamie becomes more involved in her musical aspirations, Leanne grows increasingly jealous of Kate who is monopolizing her best friend’s time and Jamie finds herself torn between loyalty to her friend and the prospect of a brighter future.
This year marks the 5th anniversary of the London Riots, and we have had a number of films, exhibits, and TV specials this summer reminiscing about the violence London underwent and the heroism our citizens demonstrated in the face of it. The release of Urban Hymn is timely then, but sadly the historic significance of the riots is upstaged by the outdated plotline. Urban Hymn is yet another film in a long list of movies that are guilty of sweeping generalisations about the economically under-privileged, perpetuating an image of crime, drugs, and under-education. It’s old-fashioned in its assumption that the only way non-white people can succeed in life is to be surrounded by white people, and this missionary-esque subtext is not only infuriating but also toxic in its narrow-mindedness.
Urban Hymn doddles along a join-the-dots script until the end when surprisingly, the director decides to throw a fly into this dull, clichéd ointment. It’s a shame that the two main young leads, Letitia Wright and Isabella Laughland did not have more to work with script-wise as their performances were nonetheless commendable despite the poor quality of the narrative. Shirley Henderson too did a fine job in her role as care worker Kate, and again, it’s disappointing seeing this accomplished actress wasting her talents on a role with such little depth.
Predictable, cliché, and disappointingly narrow in its view of not only our city but of society as a whole, Urban Hymn is exactly the kind of film made by a director who is too preoccupied lauding the sanctity of the middle classes than to think about a film with any kind of originality or realist vision, or to try to get to grips with the realities and complexities of social mobility. While studios and directors churn out film after film of CGI aliens and alternate universes, I’ll be waiting over here for a film about an underprivileged girl, from any ethnic background, who dreams of being a doctor or a scientist or any manner of profession, and who doesn’t have to deal with outdated concepts of race, class, and sexuality. Who knew that was less realistic to expect than blue aliens and spaceships. I’ll be waiting.