Somers Town is something of a sideways step in the career of director Shane Meadows. During a year in which Meadows had hoped to take a long awaited rest in order to look at future film developments, the director was contacted by the production company Mother Vision with a short story idea set against the backdrop of the completion of the Eurostar International terminal at St. Pancras train station in central London, with the residents of its nearby low-rise council estate Somers Town featuring prominently.
Meadows took an immediate interest in what was originally intended as a nine or ten-minute short film, the script being just a handful of pages. Scriptwriter Paul Fraser (Meadows regular collaborator and lifelong friend) and the director soon realised it was growing into something larger and that there was enough material for a feature, but Meadows was still stubborn on avoiding a set length with the project. Released as a 75 minute film, Somers Town qualifies as a short feature-length and contains an original soundtrack composed by the relatively unknown Gavin Clark.
The plot of Somers Town follows two teenage boys Tomo (Thomas Turgoose), a rough renegade kid from the Midlands and Marek (Piotr Jagiello), a sweet, lonely, artistic kid from Poland, with both simultaneously caught adrift in an alien world. Though Tomo is a native from the Midlands (Nottingham being the only reference point to Meadows and the settings of his previous films), it is he who is the less street-smart, particularly when he is beaten and robbed on his first night in the area. When the two boys meet the next day, they develop a mutual trust and acceptance which leads to an unlikely friendship.
Unknown to his father (Ireneusz Czop), Marek begins hiding the homeless Tomo in their flat and the two boys begin their little adventures. This includes stealing clothes from a laundrette and earning money from an eccentric, albeit lonely, neighbour called Graham (Perry Benson). Central to their adventures, though, is a French waitress called Maria (Elisa Lasowski), who works at the local café. Her supporting character is crucial to the story because a young English ‘chav’ and a culturally displaced Pole competing for the affection of an unattainable French woman helps make the film charming and engaging. Her positive response to their wholehearted affection epitomises universal love in the most unlikely of settings.
Somers Town shares certain similarities to Breaking and Entering(2006, Dir: Anthony Minghella) in that it concerns people from Eastern Europe searching for a better life in London. Also, the proximity of Somers Town was very close to the late Minghella’s film as that was set in nearby Russell Square, with the plot also concerning the development of St Pancras new European Terminal which is central to the story and motivates the film’s title. The other (somewhat reverse) coincidence linking both films is that renowned French actress Juliette Binoche plays a Polish woman in Breaking and Entering, while in Somers Town the somewhat less famous Polish actress Elisa Lasowski plays a young French woman. However, there is no doubting the authenticity of the conversations between Marek and his father, which are in Polish (with English subtitles).
The film was shot in ten days, with an extra day in Paris. The conspicuous (mainly) black-and-white choice for the film was motivated by Meadows discovery that not only did a study of a social environment in London suit black-and-white but that, ultimately, there was too much stark contrast in the location footage (everything coming out yellow) and this had too much of a jarring effect for the director. Therefore, he opted for black and white as a more serene contrast and not for any artistic or symbolic reasons. The colour sequence at the end contains no dialogue but some nice non-diegetic music from Gavin Clark. It shows the two boys finally boarding Eurostar for Paris in order to track down Maria and does not disguise its totally different atmosphere.
Despite its departure from the conventional feature film approach, it did not hinder Somers Town’s critical reception, with an excellent response at the 2008 Berlinale. The two central characters Thomas Turgoose and Piotr Jagiello jointly shared the award for Best Actor in a Narrative Feature Film at the Tribeca Film Festival and Somers Town had its U.K. premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June 2008, where it was to win the Michael Powell Award, the festival’s highest accolade.
Somers Town is out now on DVD. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.