A Poignant and Universal Film: London River


Set against the aftermath of the July 7th 2005 London terrorist attacks, London River is a moving and emotional film that follows two parents on a pursuit to find their missing children. Elisabeth (Brenda Blethyn), an English Christian widow from a small farming community in Guernsey, travels to London after the bombings when she fails to hear from her daughter. Similarly, Ousmane (Sotigui Kouyaté), a French African Muslim, also travels to London to find his missing son, who he has not seen since the child was six years old.  However, the film immediately indicates Elisabeth and Ousmane’s vast cultural differences: for instance, in the first scene, Elisabeth is singing and praying at her local church in Guernsey, while Ousmane is praying to Allah, facing the Holy Mosque of Mecca, in France.  However, as the film progresses, we realize that Elisabeth and Ousmane have many more similarities than differences.

As Elisabeth’s journey in London materializes, the anxious mother discovers that the area her daughter resides in is predominately Muslim, which is far from her racially homogenous and traditionally Protestant town in Guernsey. On her quest, Elisabeth eventually meets Ousmane. When the worried and frantic mother visits all the hospitals, mortuaries, and police stations searching for her daughter, her path continues to crosses with Ousmane’s, who is on his own journey to find his long-estranged son. However, Elisabeth’s preconceived cultural and racial biases overshadow her sensibilities and she is initially frightened to even shake Ousmane’s hand. She later has him arrested when he reveals that their children knew each other.  Despite Elisabeth’s initial prejudices, we can somewhat understand her fear and trepidation, especially as it becomes more apparent that she is unaware of her daughter’s secret life.

Blethyn provides an incredible performance of her portrayal of Elisabeth, as we follow her from the first scene of the film and feel every emotion with her throughout its entirety.  In the beginning, we are aware of Elisabeth’s prejudices and racist views: “This place is absolutely crawling with Muslims,” Elisabeth says to her brother. When she travels to her daughter’s Finsbury Park flat, she soon realizes that her daughter and Ousmane’s son were in fact living together. Despite their many differences, both Elisabeth and Ousmane wonder if their children were perhaps victims or even transgressors in the terrorist attacks on 7/7. Most importantly, though they wonder if their children are even alive. Therefore, two parents’ very separate worlds and cultures are brought together by a common goal and emotion. We, the viewers, soon acknowledge that the typical barriers of gender, race, and religion are broken.

We find that Elisabeth and Ousmane have more in common than just finding their missing children. One of the best scenes of the film is when the two characters are sitting on a bench together in silence. After a short while, they converse and realize their many commonalities: aside from both speaking French, they tend to living things (Ousmane a forester protecting elm, and Elisabeth a farmer and gardener), and they both lead solitary lives. “Our lives aren’t that different,” Elisabeth notes.

These compelling conclusions can only be conveyed through the brilliant performances of both Blethyn and Kouyaté.  Rachid Bouchareb, the director of London River, specifically sought out Blethyn and Kouyaté to play their respective roles. He knew his intended direction of the film before he even began shooting the film. As a result, he found little need for a long script rich with dialogue. He entrusted both his actors, Kouyaté and Blethyn, to improvise their parts. Bouchareb provided them with only a few lines so that the actors could truly become their characters and develop the rest of the scenes on their own.  He spent only two weeks with the actors prior to the shooting of film.

Cultural adversity is not foreign to Bouchareb: he typically focuses his films on transcending barriers of gender, race, and culture. For instance, he is currently set to produce an Arab‐American trilogy addressing the ever-changing relationship between Americans and the Arab world. Born in France and from a Muslim family himself, Bouchareb thought that it would be interesting to have a movie about an African Muslim man and an English Christian woman finding common ground.   

With the combination of a fictional story and a realistic situation, viewers sympathize and relate to both parents in the film and their plight to find their missing children and we get to watch Blethyn and Kouyaté’s brilliant performances in the process. London River not only has a thrilling plot, it also allows a river to flow and connect two very different individuals in order to transmit a powerful and lasting message to the audience.

To learn more about Bouchareb and his film style, please read the full extent of his interview  with Cinema Without Borders.


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Laura Korman

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