The title of Shane Meadows' Somers Town refers to the bleak working-class neighborhood that lies in the shadow of London's St. Pancras train station, where, in the fall of 2007, the Eurostar train company launched a new high-speed rail line to Paris. In an unconventional marketing move, Eurostar commissioned Meadows (Twenty Four Seven, Dead Man's Shoes) — the cinema's poet laureate of hardscrabble Midlands living — to make a film for the occasion, which began as a short and evolved into this 70-minute feature.
That fact alone may guarantee Somers Town a footnote in film history as the apotheosis of product placement, the final blurring of the line between art and paid advertising. But the film is considerably softer in its sales tactic than the feature-length FedEx commercial known as Cast Away and the Transformers movies' effort to jump-start the U.S. auto industry. Whereas Hollywood long ago sold its soul to corporate benefactors, audiences can rest assured that Meadows has managed to retain his.
It's hardly surprising that a train company would want to get into the movie business, given that trains have seduced a century of moviemakers, from the Lumière brothers to Tony Scott, with their intrinsically cinematic motion. But trains figure curiously little in Somers Town, whose primary characters have already arrived at their chosen destination — London — when the movie begins, yet remain very much in transit, unmoored, searching for a sense of home. They include Tomo (the wonderful Thomas Turgoose, who was the skinhead initiate in Meadows' previous This Is England), a spirited Nottingham youth who comes to the big city with all his worldly possessions on his back, and Marek (newcomer Piotr Jagiello), a Polish teen whose recently divorced dad is one of the laborers building the new Eurostar line.
The two boys' paths cross by chance after Tomo is beaten and robbed, with Marek agreeing to surreptitiously feed and lodge the homeless, penniless Tomo behind the back of his frequently drunk father. On the subject of his own family — or whether he even has any — Tomo says only that he didn't want to become another dead-end nobody in a dead-end town. And so, with a chutzpah that far outstrips his modest physical size, he has journeyed to this great global crossroads in search of a better life.
Meadows, who comes out of the same tradition of British social realism as Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, is nearly as discreet about his social agenda as he is his corporate shilling. Although there's an attendant gloom to the film, emphasized by the desolate black-and-white cinematography of Natasha Braier (who also shot the seductively voyeuristic Spanish film In the City of Sylvia), the tone is airy, even whimsical, as his two rudderless adolescents roam about their forgotten corner of the city, engaging in a bit of Chaplin-esque slapstick with a bag of stolen laundry, working odd jobs for a hucksterish street vendor (the hilarious Perry Benson), and making clumsy passes at the slightly older French girl (Elisa Lasowski) who waitresses in a neighborhood cafe. Marek, an aspiring photographer, snaps her picture, and, in one scene that tips its hat to the playfulness of the French New Wave, the two young suitors chauffeur her home in a repurposed wheelchair.
Without ever trivializing his characters' meager circumstances or resorting to the rags-to-riches fantasy of Slumdog Millionaire, Meadows (working from a script by frequent collaborator Paul Fraser) has made a lovely film about the ability of the imagination to offset the harshness of reality. Somewhere amid all the apocalyptic doomsaying about globalization, he locates a hopefulness — perhaps genuine, perhaps illusory — that has also come with the disappearing borders (and, okay, fast trains) of the new Europe. If only all commercials were this pleasurable, God might never have had to invent TiVo.