Attempt number 5 at getting a review of UATSC down. Yes. It has taken me five days and four scrapped attempts to finally post my review of UATSC. To jump ahead, I think the film is good. But I almost felt a little bit too entertained and not quite affected enough by it, due to the aesthetic and plot choices in it. And I acknowledge that that is due to having read the book – which has resulted in my own interpretations and own mental visualisation of the story. As it is, the film is film-maker Candida Brady’s own, individual interpretation of the story. And it is therefore separate from the book and equally valid. My difficulty at coming to a conclusion about the film’s merits is hampered by my expectations, based on the source material – which potentially makes my review unfair.
You see, I walked into the film with high expectations, wanting to love this film, seeing my favourite actor excel (once again) and lead in a movie that could not only cement his status as a serious and excellent leading man, but also raise awareness for a topic that can never be mentioned enough. A story worth telling, giving a voice to those who are mostly unheard, highlighting the failure of our social systems, but real and therefore a piece of contemporary history. A true story, no less, recorded for posterity in Bernard Hare’s 2005 memoir Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew and chronicling the unusual friendship of the eponymous Urban and his unlikely saviour, “Chop”, aka Hare himself, as well as providing a haunting social commentary on life on the margins of society in 1990s Leeds. It is all there – the larger-than-life characters, the gritty setting on a council estate in East Leeds, the ever-unsolved and universal problems of drug abuse and child neglect, and the satisfying yet not entirely unrealistic resolution. Perfect, ready-made material for a film maker with a conscience. And last but not least a film with the well-known name of Richard Armitage attached, an actor renowned for nuanced and convincing acting.
But a book adaptation is always a heavy burden for any film maker. How to marry the desire to make a commercially successful entertainment product, with the need to tell a gripping, true story that is respectful to the protagonists (and yet might be scrutinised by some members of the audience who know the source material)? *And* to do so in an artistic yet entertaining fashion that keeps the audience interested, makes the film stand out, yet stays faithful to the story? I think film-maker Candida Brady had a lot on her plate there, and kudos to her for taking on this project!
The film opens with the eponymous Urban running away from a children’s home. His journey home takes him, barefoot and in pyjamas, through (parts of) Leeds. It’s a nice way to set up the background of the story, the place where it is set, and it introduces us to some of the characters from the “shed crew”, his group of friends, until Urban finally takes us to his home, where his drug-addicted mother Greta fails to run the coop. Urban’s saviour Chop is introduced through his first encounter with Greta, with whom he becomes romantically involved. These three characters are the “fixed stars” of the film – the three characters whose lives intersect and propel the story forwards, through various crises and a good few scenes of humour.
They are depicted in full “glory” – Urban is ably portrayed by young Fraser Kelly who convincingly captures the dichotomy of the streetwise, smart kid and the little boy in search for stability and guidance. You want to hug his Urban and give him love (and a warm, home-cooked meal) and rescue him from the circumstances. His mother Greta is beyond all help, it seems. She is caught up in her addiction, and unable to look after her children, only focussed on herself. Anna Friel gives a stellar performance in this difficult role. She has to play a character who somehow is incapable of taking the opportunities for redemption that are offered to her, and Friel is absolutely stunning, from acting the madness and the irrationality of Greta so convincingly, to screaming in a thick Yorkshire accent.
Her performance almost eclipses Richard Armitage’s, whose role does not give him opportunity for that kind of scope. Although his Chop is by far the perfect hero, Armitage does not get to portray the awful extremes of human existence or mental instability. But that is down to the fact that his Chop is arguably the most “normal” and copped-on character, the identification figure in this piece – the redeemer and saviour who brings stability and care into the chaos, despite his own failings. Armitage imbues Chop with the warmth and compassion that is implied in the book, and his strongest scenes are the ones with his young co-stars where he fosters the youngsters while remaining their confidante, as well as Chop’s break-down in a scene with a social-worker friend that ultimately convinces Chop to take charge of Urban. Chop is the most relatable of the lot, and Armitage’s performance has to rely on nuance and heart, which it does beautifully. I completely bought the scruffy social worker type,
not least because he inhaled so convincingly… But seriously, this is a sort of character he has not done before. Chop is not one of the obvious alpha males that Armitage has portrayed so far. Porter, Thornton, Thorin, Lucas North, Guy – all largely confident men, convinced of their own merits and skills, and possessing balls of steel. Chop is a different type, quietly strong and intelligent, yet veering on self-destruction. For this, Armitage had to pare back the bravado and action, and instead negotiate the fine but decisive line between quiet confidence and weakness. Done well and convincingly, so much so, that I would love to see Armitage in less action-focussed roles in the future. [objectification mode on] Oh, and he is not shabby to look at, either, despite the bulky grunge look of the 90s.[objectification mode off]
The film is a snapshot of the characters’ lives at a particular point in time, without much background, and it fully succeeds in giving us a glimpse into their existence: neglected children who turn to drugs and crime in an effort to negotiate their daily lives. Without any positive role models to look up to, they repeat their parents’ mistakes. Until Chop gains their confidence and trust, and attempts to give them (subtle) guidance and structure. He is most successful with his young protégé Urban with whom he is closest, and their relationship is supposedly the focus of the film, culminating with a happy ending that implies a (better) future for both Urban and Chop.
Even though the drug-taking scenes are haunting and intense, it is the scenes when Urban and his shed crew friends are shown as the children they really are, which are most heart-breaking. He becomes the children’s “guardian”, entertaining them with stories (such as the Arthurian legend) and opening their minds to education and art. When he talks, they listen, they become children, and it is heart-breaking to see how eagerly the youngsters are looking for an adult to listen, guide and look after them. It encapsulates the message of the film to me – the answer to child neglect and drug abuse are not nanny-state schemes and institutionalisation, but making sure that children have responsible adults to look after them and give them guidance – and love – in an individualistic manner, not prescribed by paragraphs and laws.
Mind you, I am not sure the message is all that clear in this film. I felt that the focus was shifting occasionally and I was confused whether this was the story of a man’s unlikely friendship with a young boy, a tragic romance between the protagonist and Greta, or a story of redemption for the main character Chop. Particularly the shed crew, i.e. the wider group of children and teenagers, seemed to get too little screen time for a group that is even mentioned in the title of the film. In short: the focus was not quite clear for me.
Stories such as Urban’s are perfect for arthouse distribution – especially when they are based on true events. As such I would have preferred the film to be more edgy in its cinematographic realization. The film makes a few interesting attempts at less conventional cinematic representation, but inconsistently so: For instance, it uses a voice-over by Urban himself during the introductory scenes which give background and insight into the mind of the boy – and then never picks up this story-telling device again. Similarly, in a beautiful scene that takes Chop and Urban on a bonding trip to Scotland, the film uses some stop-start motions which are interesting to look at and add a bit of visual spice to the cinematography – only to never return to this artistic device again. More consistency here could have given UATSC a unique and gritty look that would befit an edgy urban (Urban!) drama, as would have more variety in camera angles or emphasis in lighting tones.
It doesn’t have to be the funky changes of perspective from the inside of a toilet bowl á la Trainspotting all over again. But the 1996 Danny Boyle-directed heroin drama on the basis of Irvine Welch’s novel, has really set the bar for a commercially successful, cinematographically interesting, non-mainstream film, not least due to its hard-hitting, intense soundtrack. While the music for UATSC was by no means bad, a soundtrack that would’ve reflected the electronica-driven 1990s reminiscent of “raves” and “E” a bit more (local punk/folk/electronic outfit Chumbawamba comes to mind here), could have added to the atmosphere. Occasionally, UATSC’s music felt a little bit too happy for my taste – unless the contrast between uplifting music and the less-than-happy circumstances depicted in the film was deliberate. Oh, and just to completely out myself as a pedantic nit-picker – I really disliked the “funky” fonts used for the credits at the beginning of the film that were more reminiscent of an adventure drama for kids than a film that could be a contender for a serious drama as social critique. Less is more!
There is no doubt, however, that this is a story worth telling and the film is a great attempt at raising awareness for the ongoing problems it addresses. It stays faithful to the real life story, a few changes in sequence notwithstanding, and it takes great care to depict the real, living protagonists fairly, respectfully and with sympathy. This is not a finger-pointing film – it makes no judgment on the victims, but tells their story. Appropriate and commendable. The characters are discernibly the real people Hare described in his book, and despite leaving out some of the central problems of the real shed crews’ existence (early sexualisation and prostitution), the hardship of their lives in underprivileged circumstances and under threat of drug abuse is unflinchingly presented. While I would have preferred a grittier realization of the story, the more conventional approach of the film-maker might make the film more susceptible (and digestible) to a mainstream audience. Ultimately, that is the goal – by packaging the challenging story and its difficult themes in a smooth, digestible format, more people may be reached and distribution could be widened. It is to be hoped that a distributor will be found – or that the film will be picked up by a TV channel where it ultimately might sit better than in an art house scenario.