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Set to the backdrop of the 2011 England Riots, Urban Hymn is a coming-of-age film that had its world premier at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival and is now coming out onto DVD in the UK.
Jamie Harrison (Letitia Wright) is a young woman who has had a tough childhood, losing her mother to a drug overdose at a young age, growing up in the social care system and has been in trouble with the law. She is also about to turn 18 and will be forced to face the world by herself. Yet she has a talent for singing and her new social worker Kate (Shirley Henderson) wants Jamie to fulfill her potential. However, Jamie is torn between the woman who wants to bring her out and her best friend since childhood Leanne (Isabella Laughland) who has the ability to drag Jamie down.
Urban Hymn has a narrative that audiences are used to: a young person falls into a life of crime but has an untapped artistic talent and is torn between their old life and new one. It has been a format which has worked in money making movies like the Step-Up series to indie efforts like Four Minutes. Urban Hymn aims for a position in between, being accessible to most audience members and still has a social conscience regarding the care system in the UK. It’s essentially Ken Loach-lite regarding these themes – having a few on the nose lines like the dialogue about the lack of funding and even has a cameo from the musician/political activist Billy Bragg. Social workers are jaded – dealing with constant fighting and breaking the law – and simply writing off some of the children. Social workers also have to face restrictive rules – like not being able to touch a child even when the child wants it: like a sweet six-year-old girl (someone who looks like she has entered from the set of the children’s show Tracey Beaker) and social workers cannot enter rooms – which some of the kids exploit. When a middle-class dinner party is shown they have no real understanding of the plight of the kids in care – just seeing their situation in black-and-white terms.
Urban Hymn has the hallmarks of a film being made by an emerging filmmaker, but it really had an experienced team behind it. It was written by Nick Moorcroft whose experience has been in comedy, making the St. Trinian’s reboots and co-writing the black comedy Burke & Hare. The film was directed by Michael Caton-Jones, a real hit-and-miss director: he has made some great films like Rob Roy and Beyond the Gates (Shooting Dogs in the UK), but also has Basic Instinct 2 to his credit. Caton-Jones’ experience does shine through, competently showing in the workings of children’s home, prison and the inner-workings of a middle-class home. Caton-Jones even stated that working on Urban Hymn was one of his greatest filmmaking experiences. Urban Hymn lacks the grit of films that other British films like The Unloved and Fish Tank have offered but it is still a well-made movie and Caton-Jones gets the most out of his young cast. When the film moves into a prison, Caton-Jones clearly references the 1979 classic Scum in one scene.
The major problem is the screenplay by Moorcroft. He clearly had noble intentions in showing how children in the care system are ignored and written off and that everyone deserves a chance in life. But, the screenplays takes a few too many tangents like Jamie and Leanne going to prison and the movie is a series of events: Jamie joins a choir, performs publicly, get an audition for a music school and sent to prison. When Kate and her husband (Steven Mackintosh) have arguments it is overly melodramatic.
Urban Hymn has a strong trio of actresses who give strong performances. Shirley Henderson is best known for her role as Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter films and being one of Bridget Jones’ best friends. With Urban Hymn Henderson is allowed to flex her dramatic muscles and she works well with the young Letitia Wright as Kate encourages Jamie. Wright is an actress with a lot of potential: since starring in Urban Hymn she has appeared in the second season of the British-American sci-fi series Humans and has roles in two major Hollywood movies coming up, Ready Player One and Black Panther. She was the one who had to anchor the movie, being torn between the woman who believes she can make something of herself and the friend who can drag her down. Her performance came across effortlessly natural.
Isabella Laughland had the more showy role as Leanne – as a young woman who likes to get drunk and high and have sex. Leanne was a character filled with venom, willing to say hurtful things – offering thinly veiled threats and too quick to get angry. She is a character that is easy to hate.
Urban Hymn is a polished, competently made movie that is aiming to be Ken Loach for teens. It has the acting quality and it is well meaning, but it doesn’t have the edge that similar movies of its kind possess.
Special Features: The special features on the DVD is disappointing: there is 14 minutes of behind the scenes footage and two trailers for the film.