London calls to Shane Meadows in Somers Town

The English director's latest film offers a grounded coming-of-age story

The titular neighborhood of Shane Meadows’ new film, Somers Town, is a small, working-class ward near the dead center of London. Bordered by a trio of railway stations, trains have been intersecting, running through, and stopping in Somers Town since the invention of the steam engine. Charles Dickens, that bard of English orphans, lived here as a child until his family was evicted and sent away. When lonely teenage runaway Tomo (Thomas Turgoose) steps off the train here at the beginning of Somers Town, he connects with a history as old as Dickens himself.

Played by the brilliant, young Turgoose, Tomo bears little resemblance to those pathetically sad orphans of 19th-century London, or even the cinematic hoodlums of Hollywood. He mumbles about his parents in between bites of a sandwich, “They’re just people that I know, useless wastes of space like me.” No melodramatic soundtrack bursts in at this moment, nor does Tomo well up in tears or find a building to vandalize. He just keeps eating his sandwich.

After bumming around for a night and getting jumped, Tomo makes friends with Marek (Piotr Jagiello), the Polish son of an immigrant construction worker. They steal some laundry and eventually have too much to drink, but their existence is better behaved than the violent hoods and toughs of Meadows’ earlier flicks. Marek's a budding photographer and Tomo stays busy trying to find clean clothes and food. It’s an exceedingly small story that never leaves the neighborhood and ties together after just a couple of days.

In the careful, black-and-white lens of Meadows and Argentine cinematographer Natasha Braier, Somers Town is an unforgiving grid of concrete blocks and architectural lines. Set against such rigid urban landscapes, the human figure looks shabby and out of place. Some of Somers Town’s most evocative passages are simply street scenes set to Gavin Clark’s tasteful acoustic soundtrack.   

Meadows worked with Turgoose on his last movie, 2006’s unforgettable This Is England, and tackled some heavy themes of racism and masculinity in the historical context of ’80s skinhead punks. What Somers Town lacks in scope or size, it makes up for in authenticity. Jagiello's and Turgoose’s unhurried, gritty performances are proof that untrained actors and an improvised script can work stunningly well in the right hands. Aside from a few missteps into sentimental montages, the tone is pitch-perfect. Somers Town lasts just 75 minutes but feels even shorter, like the steam clouds of a passing train.