Urban Hymn, directed by Michael Caton-Jones, focuses on young offender Jamie (Letitia Wright) and her attempts to turn her life around with the help of social worker Kate (Shirley Henderson), while all the time struggling to break free from the influence of her best friend Leanne (Isabella Laughland), who has no interest in such self reformation, and from her own past crimes, including involvement in the 2011 London Riots, which constantly threaten to come back to haunt her. Meanwhile Kate is dealing with her own personal tragedy, and sees her work with young people such as Jamie as a way of overcoming her grief.
Jamie and Leanne are inseparable, and near the start of the film we see them rob a local convenience store together. Later though, when Leanne is sent to prison, Kate decides to try and redirect Jamie’s focus towards a more positive activity, and so encourages her to join the community choir which she is a part of. Jamie begins to thrive now that she has a space to express herself, and she begins to see that she may have a future on the right side of the law, especially when opportunities to further her musical aspirations present themselves. However, all of this is jeopardised when Leanne returns home, with fresh revelations about trouble that may be just around the corner.
The film subtly explores how a criminal past can continue to affect an individual even after they have decided to turn their life around. Caton-Jones and writer Nick Moorcroft are capable of offering hope to their characters, and the audience, while at the same time leaving in the background the shadow of the past, whether it be events that the audience have witnessed earlier in the film or those that unfolded before the events of the film.
The two young leads are superb. Wright carries the film with a strong presence and voice, and has such great charm and charisma that the audience is willing her to succeed in putting her life back on the straight and narrow, even when she makes decisions that seem unwise or even wrong. Particular praise must also be given to Laughland who, in one of her biggest on screen roles to date, shines as the devil on Jamie’s shoulder. She is also the lynchpin for the one of the final, most shocking moments of the film, which leaves us stunned and breathless. This feeling of having been punched in the gut is a credit to the filmmakers and the actors, who carry it through with great nerve and conviction.
Meanwhile Henderson, who made her name in the 90s with a starring role in the tv series Hamish Macbeth and smaller roles on the big screen in Trainspotting and Rob Roy, in which she worked with Urban Hymn’s Caton-Jones, brings experience and gravitas to a film which otherwise relies on the energy and vigour of its younger cast members. The scenes which explore her own grief are visceral and heart breaking, and much of this is down to Henderson’s powerful performance. In Urban Hymn, Henderson affirms her position as one of the most talented of British actresses, who has never really been given the opportunity to show her talents to a wider audience.
There are some aspects of the script that do not quite ring true. Indeed, Kate’s home life is shown intermittently throughout and we witness her have disagreements with her husband about her choice of career and view of the young people she works with. It is a stretch to believe that two people with such opposing moral viewpoints would have ended up together, and indeed the conflict that arises feels unnecessary in lieu of more development of the central storyline. Furthermore, the film does at times gloss over some of the nastier aspects of its subject matter, which at times made the drama feel trite. Exploration of these darker themes would have made for a more interesting and realistic depiction of the real situations people like Jamie find themselves in. Despite these missteps, Urban Hymn is an efficiently made and contains two or three moments of real gravitas that make it worthy watch.