Somers Town: Shane Meadows' Eurostar-Funded Film Reviewed
, August 21st, 2008 17:03
Does the fact that Somers Town is a feature-length Eurostar advert make it a bad film? David Moats thinks it through
Somers Town is a very topical setting for a film. This area, cut off from surrounding areas of London by two train stations, has perhaps the highest concentration of council estates in the country. The residents, which are largely made up of generations of new immigrants, have been extremely active at protecting their concrete island from outsiders and have resisted the gentrification rearing its ugly head around them. There was even a recent series of protests about the decision to build a contagious disease research facility on a derelict site there. “28 Days Later anyone?” says the community’s mySpace page. But perhaps most importantly, the recent opening of the new St Pancras International Station has made Somers Town is literally the first glimpse of England that many Europeans will get (that and the always charming Luton airport).
It is only appropriate then that Shane Meadow’s film about the area was fully financed by Eurostar, whose trains pull into the platforms of the refurbished station. Although Meadows has insisted that he was given creative carte-blanche by the European rail company and Eurostar has claimed their interests in the film are purely cultural, it’s hard not to read into the funding into the film.
The plot of the film unfolds constantly in the shadow of the majestic St. Pancras building: the young runaway Tommo (Thomas Turgoose) enters stage right through the terminal; meets a kind soul on the train (when does that ever happen in England?); befriends a young Polish Boy named Marek (Piotr Jagiello) whose father works at the terminal; and exists stage left on a freewheeling trip to Paris.
When the characters are not staring listlessly at the nearby station, they are talking about the thrill of travelling under the Channel at high speeds and about how fun Paris is and how attractive the French are. The ending is literally a Eurostar advert (this is not a spoiler because it’s completely extraneous to the film). In grainy 8mm colour stock, we see the two boys embarking on a trip to Paris: fondling their tickets, gazing at the countryside speeding by, running blissfully through the city’s streets and implausibly bumping into the only French person they know.
If I’m being cynical, and I usually am, it seems as if Eurostar contracted a director known for painting blistering, gritty portraits of the English working class to make a movie about London that would send Londoners running in terror (via the Eurostar chunnel) to glamorous, happy Paris. Luckily there’s more to it than that.
Several articles have dubbed Somers Town an entirely new kind of branding exercise. Instead of an advert, the corporate interests are creating a legitimate piece of art which will stand the test of time, as will, fingers crossed, their brand.
But while the branding agency might claim they’re doing something new, it’s really nothing more than a particularly costly product placement. Quite simply, the film is delivering an audience to a product: the audience in question is made up of culturally aware British moviegoers who can tolerate films in black and white the occasional subtitle i.e. – exactly the sort of people who would take the train to Paris for a weekend.
Indecently, my favourite product placement of all time occurs in Disney’s Mission to Mars where the astronauts literally repair the ship using Dr. Pepper (a sachet of which floats in front of the screen for an uncomfortably long time). Message: Dr. Pepper is not only delicious and refreshing but will save your worthless ass! But the most effective product placements are far more liminal and devious. Eurostar is never actually mentioned in the film; it is the mere presence of the station and the gently wispered promise of Europe at the other end which muscles its way into your unconscious. Who would dare advertise in a social realist film anyway?
end anti-corporate diatribe
Now to be perfectly honest, if I hadn’t known about the film's funding, this review would be about how Somers Town is a wonderful piece of filmmaking, maybe Shane Meadow’s best to date. Tommo and Marek are both likeable and real. The story is genuinely funny and perhaps more nuanced than either Dead Man’s Shoes and This is England, in part because it is not weighed down by moralising. The black and white Digital Video photography is gorgeous and Meadow’s camera never flinches in the face of inner city poverty.
The only anomaly is the aforementioned colour ending which, if it is a token gesture to the film’s producers, is blatant enough to be an ironic joke. If Eurostar wanted to contrast the slums of London to the grandeur of Paris, that's what Meadows gave them: a sympathetic depiction of British inner-city life which is vibrant and alive, and a Paris which is false and as two-dimensional as a postcard.
Its easy to judge Eurostar’s motivations and Meadow’s complicity with them, but who’s to say how the film ended up the way it did. I don’t think Shane Meadows necessarily did have carte-blanche but I also don’t think Eurostar were pulling the strings. There need not be an actual conspiracy or coercion to influence peoples’ behaviour. People are perfectly capable of policing themselves. Would you slag off your patrons even if they said it was OK? Would Eurostar have hired a filmmaker if they thought he was likely to slag them off? There is no such thing as creative carte-blanche unless you are your own producer or you have the personal integrity of Sparticus.
If we accept that these sorts of branding shenanigans are part of life in the 21st century and that advertising pays for most of the good culture around, including The Quietus and much of the internet, then we can see Somers Town for what it is: a great film by one of the UK’s most original voices.