Review by Liam McGarry
Rob Brown’s feature debut is a deft and immersive portrayal of young asylum seekers living in Britain, with solid performances from lead actors Roger Nsengiyumva, Rachael Stirling and the rest of the ensemble cast. The film’s greatest strength lies in its deployment of realism through suppressed, naturalistic characterisation and its deliberate, well considered dialogue. Brown’s story is tense and compelling, he succeeds in gaining a thrilling atmosphere, and an impending sense of danger without sacrificing the believability of the dilemmas in the film. I felt that in particular, Brown handled Jumah’s backstory with subtlety and care, creating dramatic tension without patronising the audience.
The film tells the story of Jumah, an adolescent Congolese refugee living with an adoptive carer in an inner-city London housing estate. Jumah has aspirations of becoming a barber, and more fundamentally, dreams of earning a safer future in London and escaping his horrific past. This future is jeopardised after he witnesses a murder near his flat and must confront those seeking to silence him, as well as confronting his own brutal childhood in Congo.
The photography is beautiful, especially in quiet contemplative moments, and long shots of warm sunsets and cool dusk around Jumah’s estate convey a sense of the relative calm of his new life. Brown’s usage of hand-held camera conveys the rawness of the subject without feeling overtly contrived. He skilfully uses close shots of his characters to involve his audience in the events, and to help instil a sense of dread and claustrophobia in the film’s more intense scenes.
Despite its raw beauty, the film can suffer at times from sacrificing realism for the sake of its narrative, and Brown’s use of certain unsubtle dialogue choices. A particularly annoying moment is a phone call hinting to a vital plot point in the middle of the street, a moment which felt tacked on, and out of place when later revealed the full context of what had happened. This was irritating as I was concerned for the safety of the characters involved at the time, rather than wanting to accept a plot marker leading to a dramatic payoff later on.
Despite this however, the adoptive mother/ son dynamic between Jumah and his guardian is performed exceptionally well, the relationship is superbly acted, with a palpable onscreen relationship between Nsengiyumva and Rachael Stirling. A particular highlight of this relationship is in the story’s more traumatic moments where Jumah’s vulnerability is portrayed and his adoptive mother’s convincing care and consolation in such scenes is powerful and sincere.
However, this relationship can be frustrating at times, when it feels like this dynamic too, is being ignored for the continuation of the plot. The convenience of certain plot devices, another being the relentlessness with which the director reminds of Jumah’s dream, can also inhibit the realism and immersion of the film. It was in these instances, that I was reminded that I was watching a film. And in a story that relies upon, and thrives in realism and naturalistic writing, I think more care should have been taken to avoid such formulaic signposting. This could have been helped by a longer run time, and inclusion of scenes where the introduction of such plot points feels more naturalistic in the context.
Ultimately though, the sacrifices pay off, and any weaker moments are outshone by the tense, captivating atmosphere and beautiful photography of the film. Rob Brown creates an intense and hostile world for his richly drawn characters in a plot that is fraught with danger and suspense. The film is an intense and immersive urban drama, and while not without is hiccups, is far richer than the standard thriller.