A Way Of Life (18)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner29/10/2004

Four out of Five stars
Running time: 91 mins

Gritty, harrowing drama with a strong script and a terrific central performance by newcomer Stephanie James, this is like Mike Leigh on downers.

A Way of Life is the impressive debut feature from writer-director Amma Asante. It’s a well made, superbly written drama that takes an uncompromising look at certain elements of society but refuses to provide any solutions. It is, then, an incredibly bleak film (it opens with the lead characters engaging in a vicious, racially-motivated attack), but it’s definitely worth seeing and marks Asante out as a talent to watch.

Grim Life On Cardiff Council Estate

Newcomer Stephanie James stars as Leigh-Anne, a teenager with a baby on a council estate outside Cardiff. Having escaped her own messed-up family home she is trying to make a go of things on her own, despite the fact that her house has no fridge and the electricity keeps getting cut off.

She’s occasionally helped out by a makeshift ‘family’ that includes: her sensitive brother Gav (Nathan Jones), who harbours a secret crush on Julie, the mixed-race girl across the road (Sara Gregory); good-hearted but excitable Robbie (Gary Sheppeard), who has feelings for Leigh-Anne and who tries to find work; and Stephen (Dean Wong), who is in the process of changing his name to Hughes because he hates his ethnic-sounding surname.

Leigh-Anne lives in constant fear of the social services and her interfering paternal grandmother, played by Brenda Blethyn. However, as her paranoia and desperation escalate she increasingly focuses her hatred on her Turkish neighbour (Oliver Haden), who we gradually come to realise is the victim from the brutal opening scene. This means that you’re never in any doubt where the story is heading and it induces a sickening sense of dread so that it becomes almost unbearable to watch.

Astonishing Performance From Stephanie James

Stephanie James is astonishing as Leigh-Anne – she looks like a Welsh council estate version of Lindsay Lohan. Incredibly, she actually manages to generate occasional flickers of sympathy for her character, even though Leigh-Anne is a thoroughly nasty piece of work; within the first five minutes she’s unleashed a torrent of racial abuse, threatened violence and pimped out a fifteen year old virgin to a pub sleaze-bag for twenty quid.

The rest of the young cast are equally good, giving naturalistic performances that are scarily realistic. In addition, Asante’s brilliantly written script provides the characters with authentic-sounding dialogue and only once dips into melodrama, with an unnecessary revelation towards the end. It’s impressively shot, too, with cinematography by Ian Wilson.

There’s a poignant line in the 1980s John Cleese comedy Clockwise, where Cleese says, “It’s not the despair, I can handle the despair - it’s the hope” and Asante seems to have taken this very much to heart. One of the reasons that the film is so powerful is that, at every turn, the characters make the wrong choices; there are plenty of hopeful moments (the possibility of a genuine, supportive relationship between Robbie and Leigh-Anne; Gav and Julie getting together against the odds) but these are systematically destroyed by moments of anger and violence.

Put simply, A Way Of Life is the sort of film where you’ll come out too stunned to speak and in more dire need of a good, stiff drink than you’d ever thought possible. It’s a tough film to sit through, then, but it’s also an incredibly assured, insightful film that demands to be seen. On the evidence of this, Mike Leigh had better watch his back. Highly recommended.

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Content updated: 23/10/2017 18:11

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