Rachid Bouchareb’s films trade in the fraught interaction between Islamic Africans and their former Western European colonizers. In his best known works, Days of Glory and the Oscar-nominated Outside the Law, the director worked on an epic scale to chronicle the experiences of North Africans in World War II and the movement for Algerian independence respectively, crafting action-filled set pieces and working with a vast gallery of characters. In between these two expansive pieces, Bouchareb turned his attention to the 7/7 bombings, the coordinated terrorist attack on London’s public transportation that rocked the English capital in 2005, lensing the belatedly released London River in 2009.
But rather than work on the vast canvas of his more outwardly ambitious films, Bouchareb casts his account of the horrifying aftermath of tragedy on an intimate scale, allowing the halting words and frightened faces of his two leads to tell us as much as we need to know about the uncertainties of those faced with tracking down their lost loved ones. The searchers in question are Elisabeth (Brenda Blethyn), a widow from Guernsey, travelling to the capital to find her daughter, and Ousmane (Sotigui Kouyaté), a West African living in France who’s in London to check on the son he hasn’t seen since he was a boy of six.
Cutting between the characters’ stories, Bouchareb aligns the experiences of these two seekers who seemingly have nothing in common, linking them in a parallel plight of traveling throughout London, asking questions of authority figures and getting only vague answers. Inevitably the two come together and, in a slightly strained plot twist, find out that their children know each other quite well. Eventually, they will get to know each other rather well too, as soon as Elisabeth shakes off her ingrained anti-Muslim feelings.
The growing connection that develops between the pair is both believably and affectingly underplayed by the two leads and representative of an ideal of cross-cultural interaction at its least oppressive. Many of Bouchareb’s films feel like they’re made to articulate a particular political point. Days of Glory was designed to call attention to the contributions of North African soldiers in World War II and the film succeeded in instituting pension reform for the surviving veterans. London River seems similarly designed to inform the viewer that not all Muslims are terrorists, that Muslims (like Ousmane’s son) suffered as much as Christians during the 7/7 bombings, and that most Islamic communities are caring, non-ideological gatherings. Fair enough, but excepting Elisabeth’s too-rapid change from Islamophobe to accepting citizen of the world, Bouchareb never insists too heavily on his points, confining his story to the bonding between the two leads that arises out of sadness and uncertainty.
Although the film occasionally cuts away to contextualized clips from news reports, it keeps its focus small-scale, filtering the world historical through the intimately personal. Both Blethyn and Kouyaté effectively communicate a sense of bewilderment, both at the alien environment of London and the tragic events that have befallen that city, as well as a mixture of hopefulness and resignation. The two especially excel in moments of shared humor as in one warmly amusing scene where the characters joke about Ousmane’s long dreadlocks. Ultimately, in a film dealing with a large-scale tragedy of global import, one may wish for more contextualization, a broader reach, and a deeper understanding, a set of goals that are impossible in a project confining its focus to two characters who view the bombings strictly in terms of what they mean for their own families. And yet each event of global significance yields a seemingly infinite cache of stories. London River simply presents two of them, and who’s to say that these people’s personal histories are any less valid than narratives that cast a wider eye on the implications of the 7/7 bombings.