Set against the backdrop of the 2011 London riots, Michael Caton-Jones’s Urban Hymn tells the story of juvenile delinquent Jamie (Letitia Wright) who possesses a beautiful singing voice that may provide the key to a better, honest life - providing she can break free of the hold her best friend, the damaged and dangerous Leanne (Isabelle Laughland). Encouraging Jamie to use her gifts and take the right path is Kate (Shirley Henderson), her new key worker who has both taken the job and joined a local community choir to ease the grief from the death of her teenage son, murdered on his way home from football practice in a botched mugging.
What could have been a rather naff and clumsy marriage of social realism and a cheesy, sentimental ode to the power of music, is neatly averted by Nick Moorcroft's screenplay which refuses to become predictable and sticks more or less rigidly to the uncompromising truth of how some young lives are dismissed before they even have a chance to begin. Violence, harsh language and a dose of reality steer this away from the saccharine storytelling that Hollywood would employ. As someone who has worked in this field, running a programme for young female offenders, so much of Urban Hymn rings true; from the tiny glimpses of potential to be mined within each 'tearaway' society dismisses to the overworked professionals charged with finding just that, as represented by Henderson and a suitably grouchy Ian Hart as her supervisor. It is with a strong cast and an equal commitment that Urban Hymn soars higher than any uplifting a cappella rendition of a familiar pop classic in some mawkish and predictable Gareth Malone programme (though watch out for a heartbreaking and unpredictable sequence in the second half set to an unseen choir haunting take on UB40's Don't Break My Heart) Ultimately, Urban Hymn's tale is delivered with honesty and a quiet and impressive power. It's a real shame that these low budget indie features just don't get the publicity or release they deserve, even in the country that made it.
Bragg's cameo by the way highlights his inspiring work with the charity Jail Guitar Doors; He's no actor bless him, but his appearance is further testament to the film's commitment to the truth over easy schmaltz.