With British cinema overrun as ever with grimy London gangland tales, there is precious little territory that hasn’t yet been covered within the genre: Even the narrative tension between crime and spirituality in “Snow in Paradise,” an ultra-brooding study of a small-time hoodlum’s conversion to Islam, feels less novel than it should do. A glum but not inauspicious directorial debut for accomplished editor Andrew Hulme, this obscurely titled thriller suffers from key scripting deficiencies for which its concentrated, low-hanging atmospherics and a hot-wired lead performance go only so far to compensate. An artsy proposition for genre aficionados and a coarse one for arthouses, “Paradise” may find itself in commercial purgatory even on home turf.
In 2012, Sally El Hosaini’s remarkable debut feature, “My Brother the Devil,” freshened up a story of East End gang warfare with a complex personal conflict over closeted sexuality and Muslim faith; warmly reviewed but misleadingly marketed to Blighty auds as a macho urban thriller, it performed disappointingly. Heavier on hardman cliches, “Snow in Paradise” doesn’t rep quite as daring a twist on its formula, but will prove similarly tricky to position. Premiering in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, the film seemed slightly out of place amid more formally rigorous work, but it’s not quite a bolt of raw genre energy, either.
With Bart Layton’s “The Imposter,” Julian Jarrold’s “Red Riding: 1974” and Paul McGuigan’s “Gangster No. 1” among his editing credits, Hulme knows his way around splintery thriller material, and his frosh feature duly benefits from a keen, nonlinear sense of shape. Editor Barry Moen, Hulme’s assistant on a number of previous projects, has fashioned a darting, dreamlike narrative structure that initially promises much from the narrative itself. Once the whole coalesces, however, this particular story of crime, punishment and reformation — based on the real-life experiences of actor and co-scripter Martin Askew — is surprisingly simple.
Askew’s life has been filtered into that of Dave (Frederick Schmidt), an antisocial working-class striver and longtime resident of London’s formerly rough Hoxton neighborhood — the cafe-culture colonization of which only aggravates his financial aspirations. Not that he’s prepared to take the honest path out of the slums. He begins working as a delivery boy for his uncle Jimmy (Askew himself, with a cold stare and a bad-news goatee), a ruthless drug lord not inclined toward special treatment for family members — as Dave finds out when he dimly snaffles an entire kilogram of cocaine for his personal stash.
When his best friend and reluctant delivery sidekick, Tariq (Aymen Hamdouchi), goes ominously AWOL, Dave’s search leads him to the local mosque; he doesn’t find his friend, but he does find faith, as his shifty skepticism is defeated by patient, forgiving imam Amjad (Ashley Chin). The swiftness of Dave’s conversion defies credibility, though it is refreshing to see Islam presented in such a benevolent light — particularly within a strain of British cinema all too frequently given over to Anglo-Saxon cultural conservatism.
Spiritual enlightenment doesn’t provide an immediate escape from the life of crime, however. As Jimmy closes in, Dave is also wooed by old-school Essex crime boss Mickey (David Spinx), a former associate of his father’s who promises him a less lethal way to the top. A Ray Winstone type who seems hauled in from a far broader example of the genre, Mickey is a lesser-of-two-evils figure, perhaps representing the low perch from which London gangsterism has further fallen, though his narrative payoff is minimal. Even less well conceived, predictably enough, is the film’s lone female character: Teresa (Claire-Louise Cordwell, showing embers of promise despite the thankless role), a golden-hearted hooker and single mother with whom Dave has a perfunctory relationship.
These token characterizations are symptomatic of a script caught between poetic realism and stylized bluster of the Guy Ritchie school: For every thoughtful attempt to verbally or visually articulate Dave’s conflicted interior life, there’s a stream of one-note Mockney invective that does little to distinguish the film’s world from that of its less ambitious genre counterparts. It’s to Schmidt’s considerable credit that Dave is a compelling presence in either register. A relative newcomer who made his feature debut last year in David Mackenzie’s “Starred Up,” the actor has a lean, truculent intensity that recalls a less brawny Tom Hardy: He can’t finally make Dave sympathetic, but he at least makes some sense of the character’s difficult polarities.
Tech credits are all aligned with the film’s appropriately oppressive rhythm, with the throbbing sound design particularly insidious. Cinematographer Mark Wolf can’t shake a certain digital dinginess to the image, but turns it to his advantage as best he can: Shafts of bilious light and swampy pools of shadow create the sense of a film shot from inside its addled protagonist’s head.