If you arrive even half a minute late to see London to Brighton, don't consider going in - wait until the next showing. To say that this film hits the ground running is to understate its urgency.
Shortly before dawn, two figures crash noisily through the door of a public toilet. In tight close-up, they are a blur of bruises, blood and lippy. The older of the two, Kelly (Lorraine Stanley), has a swollen eye the size of a rugby ball. Make-up is streaked over the face of her 11-year-old companion, Joanne (Georgia Groome). Kelly bundles the child into a cubicle and instructs her to stay put while she gets some money. I naively assumed she was popping out to the cashpoint - but she's not that kind of girl. Soon they are on the first train creaking out of London. "Don't worry," Kelly says, catching her breath. "He ain't gonna find us." At this point, it is not clear who "he" is: but it's still terrifying.
One of their pursuers is Kelly's pimp, Derek (Johnny Harris), who resembles a stubbed toe. Breathing down Derek's neck is the gangland boss Stuart Allen (Sam Spruell), whose reasons for joining the hunt are not as straightforward as they appear. What Kelly and Joanne have done to incur the wrath of these men becomes apparent only gradually, in flashbacks to the blood-soaked night before the morning after.
London to Brighton follows both geographically and spiritually in the footsteps of Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa (1986). Both thrillers concern a prostitute and her young ward who flee to the coast, only to find that it's not so nice to be beside the seaside. What is shocking in this, the newer and earthier picture, is how blithely violence and squalor are incorporated into daily life. A farmer mutely accepts a backhander in exchange for allowing graves to be dug in his field. A punter barters with Kelly for unprotected sex, finally getting his way for a mere £10 surcharge. And after an encounter in a doorway, Kelly asks another client for directions to the seafront. Neither of them bats an eyelid at this drab post-coital exchange.
Keith Waterhouse famously described Brighton as a town that was helping the police with their inquiries, but in the film it's a lawless backwater where lost souls come when they've hit the buffers. Kelly is in her mid-twenties, and already hardened with disappointment, but the triumph of Lorraine Stanley's performance lies in her subtle suggestion that the character is not quite dead inside. You hear it in her croaking, desperate voice when she asks for the free toy at a fast-food restaurant, or when she gives in to Joanne's pleading to play arcade games on Brighton Pier. After feeding the grabber machine with coins for an hour, the child is overjoyed to win two teddy bears. "What you gonna call it?" she asks, pressing one of the toys into Kelly's arms. "I'll call it £4.80," snorts her protector, flinty to the last.
In his snappy debut, the writer-director Paul Andrew Williams makes us feel that we're in safe, if rather grubby, hands. There is only one real wobble, when Derek inexplicably releases a group of hostages - and the hostages, even more incredibly, fail to alert the authorities to the presence in their house of a demented little thug with a shotgun. But there is so much fine material here to outweigh the occasional flaw. It's hard to forget the agonising scene in which Derek first meets Joanne, and looks ready to peck the flesh from her bones. In contrast, there are some playful moments between Derek and his more temperate sidekick, Chum (Nathan Constance), who doesn't really cut it as a hoodlum - as his name suggests, he tends to make a cuppa first and ask questions later.
And then there's that beginning. One drawback to kicking off with the most dynamic opening scene of the year is that what follows is certain to be an anti-climax. That is the case with London to Brighton. The first five minutes offer a finely tuned masterclass in how to convey suspense, characterisation and narrative in just a few shots; the rest of the film is merely brilliant. As let-downs go, it's one we can all live with.
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