London River

Directed by Rachid Bouchareb
Produced by Bouchareb and Jean Bréhat
Written by Bouchareb, Zoé Galeron & Olivier Lorelle
Released by Cinema Libre Studio
UK/France/Algeria. 90 min. Not Rated
In English, French & Arabic with English subtitles
With Brenda Blethyn, Sotigui Kouyaté, Sami Bouajila & Roschdy Zem

The events of 7/7—the day terrorist attacks struck public transport in London and traumatized the city for weeks afterward—reverberates through Europe the way 9/11 does in the United States. In London River, two strangers surprisingly find that horror makes the globalization of terror very personal.

Just like 9/11 started as a beautiful sunny day in New York, two older people are quietly leading separate yet parallel lives in the summer of 2005. Elizabeth (Brenda Blethyn), a Falklands War widow, farms on the Channel Island of Guernsey, off the coast of Normandy. Ousmane (Sotigui Kouyaté), a tall, dignified West African with long, graying dreadlocks and a carved walking stick, fingers Islamic prayer beads in a French park where he works as a forester.

As Elizabeth catches the TV news of the attacks, she repeatedly calls her daughter Jane in London to check in, but keeps getting her voice mail. (I immediately flashed to my mother worriedly calling my sister at a (safe) Mumbai hotel during the November 2008 attacks.) Hurriedly leaving the farm, she travels to the unfamiliar city and enters into a confusing environment, asking the cabbie again and again if he’s taken her to the right address. The halal butcher watching her curiously turns out to be her daughter’s landlord and helpfully offers her the apartment key. In a panic she calls her brother back home: “This place is crawling with Muslims!” With radio and TV news continuously updating the casualties and the investigation, she nervously becomes more aware of its wider impact—the train station is full of “Missing” flyers (just like those posted in lower Manhattan after 9/11). She busies herself making one and bucks up her courage to distribute it around the diverse neighborhood.

Ousmane arrives in London, directed by his anxious, estranged wife back in Africa to the mosque of their son Ali, who he hasn’t seen in more than a dozen years. The sympathetic imam asks around for information, and then finds Ali in a photograph of an Arabic-language class that can be used for identification. Searching the area, Ousmane notices that the photo on Elizabeth’s flyer matches the smiling young woman next to Ali in the class photo, and he calls her.

Elizabeth reels in shock at his evidence. In a panic of anxiety and fear, she imagines exaggerated stereotypes and calls the police to interrogate him for what he knows about her daughter’s disappearance. (Blethyn’s convincing performance is more a desperate mother than a racist.) The jittery authorities who ignored her report of a missing daughter act with alacrity to her link with an African Muslim and swoop into Jane’s apartment. But all they find of interest are DNA samples, a Koran, and a traditional instrument Ousmane had given his son.

Just as their connection through the flyer comes about naturally, the parents keep uncomfortably intersecting through the dreadful ritual of rattled relatives searching hospitals and morgues. (My cousin from out of town had the same dislocated experience searching New York for her brother after 9/11.) Elizabeth follows him to the mosque to find out about her daughter’s class, but can’t wrap her mind around it (“Who speaks Arabic? Nobody we know!”), and grapples with the reality that Jane was converting to Islam. Though Elizabeth speaks French with Ousmane, she gets paranoid when he speaks Arabic to the imam.

Writer/director Rachid Bouchareb’s previous films include sweeping historical epics about French Muslims, Days of Glory (2006) and last year’s Outside the Law, but this is far more intimate and contemporary, and the interactions of the two parents have an emotionally improvisatory connection. (Roschdy Zem and Sami Bouajila, who starred in his earlier films, have only small roles here as the landlord and the imam, respectively.) While this has a somewhat similar feel to Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor (2007), immigration is incidental as the parents gradually realize how little they knew about the two young people who found each other in the freedom and opportunity of the big city. While this could be the most awkward, as well as poignant, meeting of potential in-laws ever, they become just two agonized parents—regardless of race, creed, country, ideology—struggling together to grasp at any straw and at any hope that could lead to their missing children. Released in the U.K. near the fifth anniversary of the attacks, this touching film is distressingly, and meaningfully, not a minute out of date.

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