A film about the London 1970s punk scene, the rising popularity of The Clash, and a rebellious cultural revolution ideally would pack just as hard of a punch as its subject matter. In the case of Derrick Borte’s London Town, however, audiences are left sorely grasping for more. The spirit of punk mania is lacking in this coming of age tale and is quite smothered by formula, doldrum familial drama, and unfulfilled character development. Borte brings together a great cast for the project,and a rabble rousing, inspirational music genre, but their combined whims unfortunately do not live up to the promised lure of London Calling.
Written for the screen by Matt Brown (The Man Who Knew Infinity), London Town follows 14-year-old Shay Baker (Daniel Huttlestone), a teen living in the London suburbs with his father and little sister who are together still feeling the bitter effects of his mother leaving them to go out on the road to pursue music. Forced to cook, clean, and essentially take over her role in the house, Shay feels a bit suffocated by his home life. When his mother sends a tape of The Clash in the mail, he experiences an awakening that changes the course of his story, leading to more music, skinhead beatdowns, first loves, fraternizing with band members (Joe Strummer himself, portrayed by Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and other adult thematic elements.
What this film does bring to the table is the exciting leading man debut of Huttlestone who many theatergoers and Broadway fans will recognize from both the stage and film versions of Les Miserables and as Jack (of the Beanstalk fame) in Disney’s Into the Woods. Dropping his singing voice and picking up the drama, Huttlestone takes full advantage of his maturing age in picking up a role possessing a similar grit to his former characters while establishing himself as a dependable lead in the coming-of-age genre.
Huttlestone holds his own alongside seasoned Brit Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who himself effortlessly encapsulates all of rocker Joe Strummer’s frantic intensity. The fact that Meyers is a known rocker himself may have aided in the portrayal, but the actor delivers another solid performance here that helps pick up the musical and cultural frivolity lost in much of the story.
The plot falls into a pit with the film’s secondary characters – Shay’s mother and father in particular. Shay’s father (Dougray Scott, Hitman) serves as the standard parental hindrance in the classic bildungsroman tale, – with a chip on his shoulder courtesy of an absentee wife – standing in the way of Shay’s maturation and rebellion. When he is severely injured and held up at the hospital for most of the film, this provides a more than convenient opportunity for Shay to forge out on his own sans adult supervision. His mother Sandrine (Natascha McElhone, The Truman Show) is the deadbeat parental figure providing impetus for her child’s own emotional and behavioral transformation. In navigating the eccentricities of his mother’s lifestyle, Shay is able to learn from her mistakes and grow on his own, but unfortunately, the same is not true for her. While it is somewhat refreshing to see the gender swap in typical parental roles, the story does not stray enough away from formula and gives viewers two one-dimensional characters meant to lead the protagonist.
The same regrettably goes for Shay’s eventual girlfriend Vivian (Nell Williams, who some may know as a young Cersei Lannister) who isn’t offered much in the way of complex character growth herself. Vivian is the first person to really introduce Shay to the punk world, inviting him to his first Clash show (or more appropriately, his first riot). Aside from providing visual representation of the era’s youth and evolving fashion, Vivian essentially exists to serve Shay’s development. A weak effort to give her some depth with a hidden family secret falls flat and ultimately hurts the flow of the plot.
The strongest elements of Borte’s film are Shay’s personal transformation and his interactions with the Joe Strummer character. Through the spot on costume design of Angela Billows, Shay comfortably transitions from schoolboy to punk rocker in a matter of a few scenes. Together with the built-in ruckus of Strummer, the pair kick up the film’s energy and provide some much needed fun and entertainment. Ideally, the given soundtrack should add an energy boost as well, but the incorporation of The Clash’s music and music from the era in general doesn’t circulate as easily as expected.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
The electric promise of London Town fizzles out quickly. With a film focused on bland familial strife and ultimately disconnected from its cultural and musical spark, Borte loses interest early on. Audiences will be left wanting more of the music and youth culture without satisfaction. Lead actors Huttlestone and Meyers carry the film about as far as they are able, but even their talents and on screen chemistry does not give London Town the jump-start it needs.