Sunday, 3 January 2016

North V South (2015)

"Those miserable jellied eel fuckin' Knees Up Mother fuckin' Brown shitheads!"

And the winner for best film featuring a transvestite French hitman called Gustave goes to North V South!

What do you mean 'there wasn't any competition'???

I checked this out because I'd heard it was a modern day spin on Romeo & Juliet using warring gangsters of the North and South of England as the Houses of Montague and Capulet. Unfortunately writer/director Steven Nesbit only pays lip service to Shakespeare's classic tale in the relatively minor storyline of his star crossed lovers; Terry (Elliot Tittensor) an enforcer for Northern crimelord Bernard Hill, and Willow (Charlotte Hope) the daughter of London's criminal kingpin Steven Berkoff. In fact you could argue that this film is as much a spin on Luc Besson's Leon (it features an orphaned girl being tutored in the life of an assassin by Northern femme fatale Freema Agyeman) than it is an updated Romeo & Juliet. Nesbit takes only the core themes and the basic characterisation from the Bard. It's a shame, but probably understandable - people would directly compare it to Baz Luhrmann's 1996 update and naturally find this low budget offering wanting.

The action concerns the big crime families of the North (grubby and base) and the South (pretentious and preening) agreeing to meet to flesh out a truce. Unfortunately these good intentions are upset by the arrival of the South's fiery and maverick enforcer Gary Little (Brad Moore - a truly loathsome character performance) who has unwittingly killed a hapless clown (literally, it's Steve Evets in clown make-up) over some misdemeanour, only to realise that he was the best friend of the Northern boss - this is the closest the film gets to Tybalt killing Mercutio.

Evets had a daughter, a young child played by Sydney Wade, who witnessed his violent demise and is brought before Bernard Hill and his crew to give evidence on what she saw and also on what she heard; which was the South's surreptitious plan to lull the North into a false sense of security before taking over their patch for good. Hill entrusts the daughter to his 'sergeant', Penny (Agyeman) who agrees to train her up whilst the two families pair off against one another, both seeking help from Dom Monot's cross-dressing assassin Gustave - a bold character, rip-roaringly played, who ultimately injects the film with some much needed character and wild humour. It needs it, because despite an accomplished cast, Nesbit's script stumbles at several hurdles.

It's a script that demands a rewrite, as it very much has the unfocused feel of an early draft. They say you always know you're in danger when a film opts for an extensive voice over to explain the action, and we have this here with our modern Romeo becoming the film's narrator. It's not necessarily a bad idea - Tittensor is a likeable enough performer and, by giving him this device, it helps to keep his romantic storyline central to the plot -  but if your intention is to make a densely plotted, labyrinthine thriller, it really doesn't help to have a voice over reiterate every single twist and turn. Ultimately, you really are aware of this being a last minute attempt at cohesion when two-thirds into the action the script elects Terry to explain - over a montage - just how the North make money in their business. Surely that kind of thing, if required at all, was required near the start of the film? That, and the occasional use of flashing backwards and forwards suggest a script that was occasionally in crisis. 

It's a bold movie but it never truly convinces - are we to believe that the whole of the North and the South of England is run by just four people each? - and occasionally the tone makes for some unintentional comedy. Or does it? When Gustave arrives, or when Freema begins to train her young charge played by the very talented Wade, you realise there's actually a campy OTT humour to the proceedings and a bit more of that, and some grand guignol, wouldn't have gone amiss actually. This kind of material cries out for a touch of an in his prime Peter Greenaway and a bit less straight-to-DVD Guy Ritchie. Nesbit really needed to decide what he wanted here; gritty realistic crime flick with a hint of dangerous romance or a silly dark comedy full of outlandish action. Unfortunately, he had the budget for neither and, whilst there's a kernel of a good idea here, whatever he had ambitions for gets rather lost in the execution. 

Perhaps the worst crime committed though is Nesbit's squandering of his talent; Hill, Agyeman, Oliver Cotton, Keith Allen and Geoff Bell give as much as they can but are all rather wasted by the material on offer, whilst Steven Berkoff can do this sort of thing in his sleep - and I sometimes think he is. But the real tragedy is seeing Greta Scaachi appear in just one solitary scene as Tittensor's dying mother. There's a backstory here as to why our Romeo Terry is such a reluctant gangster and how remiss Hill is not to pay his dues to both him and his mother, but if it is ever truly explained by this messy script then I must have missed it.

Nesbit fares much better behind the camera as a director and its true to say he shoots the proceedings rather well, indicative of more consideration here than in the actual writing process. Kyle Heslop's cinematography helps to give style and mood but is hampered by a budget that can never match the scale of the story on paper, leaving him with just a few locations to shoot over and over again. A bit more money on this, a tighter rein and a proper shake up of that script and the ideas and we might have had something worth talking about here.

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