Way back in 1989 Scottish director Michael Caton-Jones made his impressive directorial debut with Scandal, a compelling look at the infamous sixties Profumo affair. After such a promising start he regrettably got sucked into the mighty Hollywood machine comprising of big star names and bloated budgets, with his movies becoming increasingly less admirable over time. The Jackal was a misfire, City by the Sea fared less well and perhaps it’s advisable to skip over Basic Instinct 2 entirely. After more than a 10 year hiatus Caton-Jones has returned to directing feature films, with a small-scale character driven story, like the sort of quality drama that made his name in the first place. Lets not forget that this is the man who once made the terrific This Boy's Life, which helped to launch the career of a then unknown Leonardo DiCaprio.
Urban Hymn opens with some hard-hitting images of the London riots that took place during August 2011, accompanied by some shaky phone camera footage that introduces delinquent duo Jamie Harrison (Letitia Wright) and Leanne Dixon (Isabella Laughland) as they gleefully loot a shop. After these chaotic opening minutes, the film switches to the quieter confines of an office. Here ambitious Kate Linton (Shirley Henderson), who has been looking for a career change, finds herself before a selection panel being grilled for a new role in child welfare. She’s successful and soon posted to Alpha House, a care home where some particularly troubled young people reside, which just happens to include Leanne and Jamie. Within days one of the staff who has been looking after Jamie gets signed off sick with emotional exhaustion, an ominous sign you might think, but not for ambitious Kate who sees an opportunity and volunteers to take over as her key worker. Later Kate hears Jamie singing in her room and recognises some real talent, attempting to make a connection through a mutual interest in music. Kate has some unconventional ideas and tries to convince the senior management that Jamie needs to, as she puts it, ”channel her negative energy into something more positive”. They’re not altogether convinced of Kate’s plans, which entail taking the girl along to her local community choir. After some initial reluctance, Jamie goes along anyway and this serves as a catalyst for a brighter future. At this point the film could have turned into a rather maudlin and simplified road to redemption tale, but thankfully it does not. Under Caton-Jones’ surefooted direction Urban Hymn remains gritty, with the meat of the story instead centring on the friendship between Jamie and her possessive friend Leanne, who sees the well-meaning Kate as a major threat coming between them. Jamie on the other hand wants to move forward, her flair for music taking off, but still feels some loyalty towards the destructive Leanne. Nick Moorcroft’s screenplay is not without clichés, which are most evident when the girls are sent back for a spell in prison as a past misdemeanour catches up with them.
Newcomer Letitia Wright is impressive, never overplaying the part of Jamie and crucially making the audience root for her character. Laughland too gives her all as the volatile Leanne, scowling and spitting out obscenities at every opportunity. Not forgetting the ever-watchable Shirley Henderson, who crops up in so many popular British movies, ranging from Trainspotting, Bridget Jones and as Moaning Myrtle in Harry Potter. In Urban Hymn she gives a truly heartfelt performance as the softly spoken and dedicated Kate. The soundtrack also deserves a mention, with a beautiful choral reworking of Standing in the Right Place by the band Belarus. Urban Hymn may not be perfect, but it’s difficult not to be moved by the film as it heads towards a touching denouement.
The film was shot on digital and is presented in 2.35:1.
In terms of audio there is a choice of Dolby Stereo 2.0 or 5.1.
The extras are limited to a couple of trailers and just under 15 minutes of behind the scenes footage. There are no subtitles available.
If you’re willing to overlook some clichés, Urban Hymn boasts three very impressive central performances. It’s great to see talented Michael Caton-Jones back in the directing chair and newcomer Letitia Wright is definitely a name to watch. The DVD from Bulldog has solid picture and audio, but is light on extras.