At first glance, it might seem strange to find Shane Meadows shooting a “legacy project” recording Eurostar’s move from Waterloo to St Pancras. Meadows, after all, is best known for a raft of movies that’ve chronicled suburban working class life in and around his native Nottingham. He’s hardly, you’d think, the obvious candidate to shoot a promo film intended to, ah, push the boundaries of brand communications. And for a company whose most memorable contribution to advertising featured Kylie skipping gaily round Paris.
Still, according to a lengthy piece about the film in Campaign I’ve just been sent, the story goes that Eurostar wanted to harness something called the “power of unbranding”. Which means, basically, they were happy to bring Meadows on board the project and let him have free reign. Apparently, Eurostar didn’t even see Somers Town until it screened earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival. There is, as you might imagine, plenty of marketing speak in the Campaign feature – “the real secret will be finding enlightened clients who see that branded content does not have to be full of logos and messages,” says one exec.
Amusingly, though, you can’t help but spot product placement in the film – however artfully Meadows’ disguises it. There’s plenty of shots of trains, the station site itself, and even a fantastic scene with one character leaning against a hoarding that informs us: “St Pancras – opening November 2007”.
Still, however engaging these digressions may be, what’s important here, I guess, is whether the film itself is any good, and quite where it fits in Meadows’ canon.
It certainly dovetails with Meadows’ usual narrative interests: in this case, the relationship that develops between two kids, the subject of A Room For Romeo Brass and, to some extent, This Is England. Here, it’s a Polish lad, Marek (Piotr Jagiello), whose father Mariusz is – yes – working on the Eurostar rail terminal. (In one unintentionally hilarious piece of less-than-subliminal advertising, Mariusz tells Marek, “Today I went under the sea on a train. It only takes a couple of hours each way.”)
Marek spends his days drifting round Somers Town, the area directly behind the railway station, where he falls in with local wheeler-dealer Graham (Perry Benson, from This Is England, who, with his knock-off Arsenal t-shirts with “Terry Henry” emblazoned on the back, provides much of the film’s humour). Marek meets Tomo (Thomas Turgoose), who’s run away from home in Nottingham, and the two strike up a friendship predicated, initially, by mutual loneliness. Soon, they both develop a competitive crush on a French café worker, Maria (Elisa Lasowski).
So far, so very Shane Meadows. But what’s missing here is the psychotic antagonist – traditionally played by Paddy Considine – to throw a spanner in the works and create some kind of narrative tension. What we have, then, is a very sweet story of friendship that, at 65 minutes long, just about gets away without the need of much dramatic conflict.
In fact, the most dramatic event in the film is when Tomo is beaten up by the local yoot on his first night in London and his bag is nicked. But even this provides some of Meadows’ typically warm-hearted humour, as Tomo and Marek lift a bag of clothes from a laundrette to replace the stolen ones -– only to find it’s full of women’s garments. “I look like a female golfer,” he protests.
Turgoose (and to some extent, Benson) provide some clear links to Meadows’ other films. It’s interesting to see Turgoose, two years on from This Is England, having lost some of his puppy fat, his voice now broken. It’s like meeting a seldom-seen nephew at a wedding and spotting how much they’ve grown. Turgoose, you’ll be pleased to note, seems to be carrying on the potential he showed in This Is England — and props, too, to Jagiello. Clearly, English isn’t his first language, and he does a really good job here as the gangly, awkward Marek.
That it’s shot in black and white and features, for the first time since 1997’s Twenty Four Seven, significant contributions to the soundtrack from Gavin Clark and Clayhill, make it feel like one of Meadows’ earlier movies. After all, it’s only 10 minutes longer than 1996’s Small Time, his first film.
Where it might suggest Meadows is going next isn’t entirely clear. Although it’s his first film set outside Nottingham, there’s very little indication that any great artistic developments are forthcoming. It feels, in fact, like a stop-gap; but one, however brief, that’s full of charm.
Somers Town opens in the UK on August 22