Fate and the 2005 London bombings throw an English widow and an African forester together in “London River,” a stripped-down two-hander from Rachid Bouchareb that trumpets political correctness far more loudly than this intimate drama can stand. Though the ending proves effective, Bouchareb and his co-scripters employ simplistic stereotypes and obvious counterpoints that shouldn’t need to be spelled out so literally. Still, with its heart in the right place and the majestic presence of Malian thesp Sotigui Kouyate, the pic will get a decent international run before heading to its originally skedded home on the smallscreen.
Opener establishes the parallels as clearly as if they were written on a blackboard: Elisabeth (Brenda Blethyn) is a Falkland Islands War widow living on Guernsey (one of the Channel Islands), first seen heading to church, where she hears a sermon about loving your neighbor. Ousmane (Kouyate, star of Bouchareb’s “Little Senegal”) is an African glimpsed in a Provencal olive grove praying toward Mecca.
Unable to reach her daughter Jane following news of the bombings, Elisabeth takes the ferry to London. The city’s multicultural vibe proves disconcerting, and she has a hard time believing the local shopkeeper (Roschdy Zem, in a cameo) when he assures her he’s her daughter’s landlord. Jane hasn’t been seen since the bombings, and the police are sympathetic but not very helpful.
Ousmane is also in London, sent by his estranged wife to look for their son Ali, despite the fact that Ousmane left the family when his child was 6; he also speaks no English and has no clue where his son lives. A visit to the local imam (Sami Bouajila) is a good start, and eventually he’s given a recent photo of Ali, taken in an Arabic-language class. Ousmane recognizes the girl next to his son as Jane (from a missing-persons leaflet) and calls Elisabeth, who has difficulty believing her daughter would be taking Arabic, let alone dating a young African Muslim.
Considering how often Elisabeth and Ousmane intersect, auds can be forgiven for thinking London is about the size of Bedford Falls. As concern grows, Elisabeth begins to cast off her knee-jerk prejudices in the wake of possible tragedy, eventually uttering the rather tired line, “Our lives aren’t all that different.”
Even given Elisabeth’s sheltered island life, it’s hard to swallow some of the standard-issue comments Blethyn is forced to utter. Given that a wounded puppy couldn’t attract more sympathy than the stately, sad-eyed Ousmane, Elisabeth’s extended coldness in the face of shared misfortune feels too much like formulaic scripting and not enough like life. Moments when the thesps were allowed to improvise, especially in the final scenes, feel considerably more genuine.
The desired contrast between the two characters is heightened by Blethyn’s and Kouyate’s widely divergent acting styles, though it’s a difference that works to the theme’s advantage. Kouyate, his thin, rigid posture like the elm trees his character protects, radiates an irresistible, wordless solidity that goes a long way to keeping everything grounded.
Shifting completely away from the scope and sweep of his award-winning “Days of Glory,” Bouchareb worked with a tight budget and a small crew, utilizing handheld cameras to successfully convey a sense of both intimacy and quiet anxiety. Armand Amar’s pleasant jazz-light compositions don’t always fit the tone.