In London to Brighton, the nuanced and exhilarating debut of Paul Andrew Williams, budgetary limitations are thriftily turned to their advantage as a captivating tale of sin and redemption is spun. As the train rattles Brighton-wards to its assured destination, so the film hurtles forth; a sense of inevitability inherent in its grim denouement. With business wrapped up in a mere 85-minutes, this is supremely efficient film-making.
Paul Andrew Williams refers on the commentary to making savage cuts to jarring expositional dialogue and back-stories, and abandoning plans to include title cards to signpost flash-backs. Thus the film is brutally pared down to its bones, with audience aids, comforts and embellishments hacked away. With its extraneous filmic flesh stripped, the focus is on characterisation exhibited not through explanation but from textured, naturalistic performances which are predominantly subtle but expertly telling.
We are encouraged to draw our interpretations from the finer details on offer: fleetingly exchanged looks, and inferences that can be derived from manner. As if searching for the truth, the camera unflinchingly gets right up in the actor’s faces, mirroring the confrontational bravado of its underworld characters.
The titular journey starts unashamedly with a situation and location which redefine stark: a filthy public toilet — the stench of which is almost detectable — where a child smeared in make-up, Joanne (Georgia Groome), is hurriedly stashed in a cubicle. She wolfs down chips whilst seated on the throne.
The woman who accompanies her, Kelly (Lorraine Stanley), has been badly beaten and is immediately identifiable as a prostitute. The situation is instantly troubling as it transpires the duo are on the run from a violent altercation with a rich paedophile, Duncan Allen (Alexander Morton). The exact circumstances of the incident unfurl as the film progresses.
A frightened Lorraine proposes that they seek solace at a friend’s place in Brighton, a short journey familiar to commuters and urban day-trippers drawn to its pebbly beaches, and a literal breath of fresh air for the escapees fleeing the densely populated capital. Aboard the train, as they ease into their journey and each other’s company, Kelly comments affectionately, on seeing Joanne’s bruises (inflicted upon her by an abusive father), “What a pair aye, me and you, black and blue.”
Unfortunately Duncan is a connected man and his son Stuart (Sam Spruell) is himself an influential and psychotic criminal. Stuart barbarically coerces Lorraine’s pimp Derek (Johnny Harris) into hunting them down – slicing his leg to encourage him to comply. The erratic Derek and his less deranged cohort, the appropriately named Chum (Nathan Constance), are horrifically flawed but recognisably human, adding a layer of complexity to the chase.
During a sequence where he procures a sawn-off shotgun from a friend, Derek is incongruously overcome with flat-envy. As the situation regarding their pursuit of the girls escalates into violence, Chum is visibly ill at ease and eventually articulates his reservations, giving the seemingly bleak predicament a shaft of hope.
The cast are comprehensively excellent. Lorraine Stanley in particular cuts a hugely sympathetic and all-too-real figure as she vividly brings to life Kelly’s hand-to-mouth existence – turning tricks ‘on the fly’ as and when they require funds, and putting herself at great personal risk in order to do what’s right by Joanne. Sam Spruell as Stuart Allen is suitably menacing in his few yet pivotal scenes; effervescing with barely contained rage. And Georgia Groome, merely 13 when she made this, is wholly convincing as the young runaway mired in a mortifying series of events beyond her control or comprehension.
London to Brighton doesn’t always successfully dodge crime clichés and contrivances as Williams himself confesses on the commentary, including the now tiresome staple: a gangster who owns a strip club. In the film’s defence, this has the interesting and condemnatory effect of connecting the different levels of the sex industry, demonstrating that beneath the veneer of relative respectability (at least when compared to a street corner) this ‘gentleman’s’ club is dirty in more ways than one. And yet, for such a gutsy endeavour the largely predictable plot trajectory does let it down, especially in the film’s final acts.
The excellent commentary illuminates the process of film-making on a shoestring. It features Paul Andrew Williams, actors Lorraine Stanley and Johnny Harris and the Director of Photography Christopher Ross. In it Williams describes haggling with the proprietors of budget fast-food chain Chicken Cottage – who they’d initially offered a paltry 50 quid – and attempting to ingeniously pass off the interior of a defunct steam locomotive as a modern train, as it was all they could get for £250.
Practical constraints hindered every aspect of the film’s production: a tight shot hides multiple uses of the same location; mates were brought on board in a number of circumstances; the pressurised shoot – spanning a mere 19 days – meant sequences were condensed and tempers frayed; and the necessarily fraternal environment led on at least one occasion to an all-night drinking binge by the cast and crew, which threatened the next day’s shoot.
The young Georgia Groome’s audition also forms part of the extra material. This is a minor but fascinating addition as initially she reads her lines in a very stilted manner but she is stopped and asked to try again. We then see her compose herself, slowly exhale and the transformation is remarkable with tears flowing freely down her cheeks.
The other extras include an alternative ending (so harsh it’s like a blow to the gut); a few daft but jolly out-takes; a “Behind the Scenes” which is short and sweet; eight deleted scenes (none offering anything that is missed); and a substantial Q&A with all the major players, where Williams discloses that Brighton was used as a location purely because it was near London, and that he had never been there before the shoot. He also reveals his mantra to the actors was “don’t act”. It obviously worked.
Despite its deeply harrowing subject matter, London to Brighton is formidably performed and directed with real pace and panache. It’s an arresting trip that you’re strongly advised to take.