Forcing Connections in '100 Streets'
100 Streets offers four groups of people who have nothing to do with each other than, well, the fact that they have to.
From the outset of 100 Streets, a car crash feels imminent. The Philip Glass-like piano score is dire, London is zipping by in timelapse, and we quickly find that the disparate characters we see will all be connected, even as their stories are their own. As mundanity turns into tragedy, a sense of dread remains inescapable and diffuse.
Beyond this sense, Jim O’Hanlon’s drama offers forgettable performances and mediocre BBC One-level melodrama. The plot weave isn’t delicate; neither is it a frenzied knot. The story is more like a slow game of foursquare, with each character waiting to be passed the ball.
A teenager named Kingsley (Franz Drameh) seeks a way to leave his street gang and find the straight life in the arts. An aging, lonely actor (Ken Stott), who meets Kingsley while the boy performs community service, advises him to pursue that passion. The lonely actor’s former professional acquaintance, Emily (Gemma Arterton), is trapped in an unhappy, infidelity-torn marriage with retired rugby legend Max (Idris Elba). And in a satellite story that somehow has nothing to do with any of them, a cabbie (Charlie Creed) is trying to hold together yet another rocky marriage by applying for child adoption.
The film’s title alludes to the opening lines of Cicely Fox Smith’s poem "The Oldest Thing in London". Verse by verse, that work celebrates a fleeting face of London always anchored by the unchanging Thames: “A thousand landmarks perish / A hundred streets grow strange … the oldest thing in London he changes not at all.”
But this version of London is missing even the specific observations of an it’s-all-connected film like Crash (2005). Unlike Paul Haggis' film, O’Hanlon’s doesn't detail the city’s many walks of contemporary life or culture. Rather, London is just a capably drawn backdrop, and the movie could just as easily have been set in 1950, or any urban center in the world.
If the characters' visible lives are the poet's London, their inner needs are the Thames. They've altered themselves in seismic ways before we ever meet them: Max retired from rugby stardom and slept with the family nanny; the cabbie jeopardized his eligibility to adopt a child with his past soccer hooliganism; Emily gave up her prime acting years. Despite a story rife with drug-fueled meltdowns and wishful clichés -- especially the one where the young criminal and the solitary old man forge an unlikely friendship-- Leon F. Butler's script has a grip on some adult stakes.
These characters crave a stability that feels true and reasonable. In a moment when her marriage hangs in the balance, Emily permanently turns away her lover (Tom Cullen), declaring, “My life is more than just kisses and playlists.” She is far enough down the path of motherhood that romance without responsibility can’t possibly measure up to the idea of family. Her husband Max seems to desire domestic peace as well, even if his ways of showing it (tantrums, gestures, and confessions) are as oversized as a sportsman's ego.
Max's excess is made credible by Elba's seemingly effortless performance, which is at least a cut or two above the rest of the cast. He hulks charmingly as always, and portrays Max as trying to win interactions with a quiet dignity. Elba has played such born-leader characters before, lionized in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, revised in The Wire, and frighteningly perverted in Beasts of No Nation. Here, Elba is pulling an old Richard Gere trick, stepping into the shoes of someone wealthy and beautiful (like himself) and finding an emptiness in that luxury which the audience might otherwise struggle to imagine.
Unlike Max, Kingsley has a future ahead of him, yet his streets-to-stage story is the movie’s least plausible. But it’s the narrative strand in which the movie asks us to find the most hope. Kingsley is clever, sure (a thinking man’s gang leader), but we’re given little idea what makes the young man a promising artist, other than his recitation of a monologue he’s written about how he doesn’t believe in fate. Rather, “Shit just happens.” In a movie with this structure, such a nihilist sentiment is perhaps meant to be ironic, though the script is unequipped to really interrogate Kingsley's worldview in relation to its own. We never find out if the events the film change his outlook on destiny.
The unfortunate paradox of character-web films is that they aim to demonstrate how fate works miracles in a massive, unknowable world. Yet, in affixing the entire cast of characters, the webs can feel forced and hyper-contained, especially here. It’s as though there are only eight people living in London, and a player's hand moves them around a game board. Crash, Babel (2006), Amores Perros (2000) all share this affliction with varying severity, but they’re broad enough, star-studded enough, and directed well enough to sell the wonder of the invisible bonds between strangers.
By contrast, 100 Streets offers four groups of people who have nothing to do with each other than, well, the fact that they have to. Narratively, this premise comes off as both a Hail Mary and a crutch, predictable as it’s straining to be unpredictable. Where should the random, obligatory car accident go? The butterfly flaps its wings halfway around the world, and in London, they’ve already extended bored palms, waiting for the rainstorm.