Writer: Che Walker
Director: Tinge Krishnan
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
There are plenty of big films and big stars at the London Film Festival but often it’s the low-budget homegrown movies that are the most satisfying. Once in a while one of them really sticks, capturing the essence of London life the way we all really live it; in 2014 it was Night Bus, never distributed, never on DVD, but a wonderfully resonant piece of film-making. In 2018, Been So Long will be that film, a musical love story set in Camden that is bursting with life.
Single-mum Simone is forced into a night out by her party-girl friend Yvonne and meets Raymond in the empty Arizona bar. Just out of prison and employed as a street cleaner, Raymond’s friends may have all settled down but the last thing he expected was to meet someone special. But Simone lives with nine-year-old Mandy whose father Kestrel suddenly wants to see her. With a knife-wielding madman on Raymond’s trail and bar-owner Barney also in love with Simone, the streets of Camden are littered with broken hearts.
Been So Long is a triumph of ingenious design that offers an honest look at an area of London we know so well. Filmed in just 25 days and with a budget of just £2 million, the film is a Netflix co-production, available online from next week. La La Land, which had its UK premiere at the London Film Festival in 2016, has been hugely influential and you can feel its imprint all over Tinge Krishnan’s approach, inspired by the deliberately normalised LA setting and transposing it to North London where cinematographer Catherine Derry has added a heightened visual effect that looks both distinctly urban and a bit magical.
Based on the play by Che Walker, character is at the heart of the film as the multi-stranded story plays out various emotional quandaries. Michaela Cole as Simone feels credibly torn between an emotionless quiet life looking after her daughter and a burgeoning attraction to Raymond that causes her to push everyone away. Arinzé Kene’s Raymond is definitely cocky, but it’s all surface as he struggles to come to terms with how much his world has changed while he’s been in prison, so his willingness to fight for Simone crashes up against his own need to get his life in order.
Been So Long is fleshed out with a number of vibrantly drawn secondary characters who may not quite have the complexity of the central pairing but are given just enough room to catch your interest. Ronke Adekoluejo’s hilarious scene-stealing performance as Yvonne is particularly enjoyable, Simone’s best friend who lives from man-to-man. Yet we invest in her transition into a character with more depth looking for some kind of future.
There are also meaningful supporting roles for George MacKay as Gil who, in flashback, lost the love of his life to Raymond and is out for revenge. MacKay has a couple of hugely entertaining numbers, one in a grubby stairwell which turns in an instant from a classic musical song to harder-edged rap. Luke Norris has a small subplot as a bar manager about to lose his livelihood – a nod to the difficulty of sustaining an independent business – but harbouring a subtle but deeply felt emotion for Simone which he only ever reveals to the audience in a couple of sweet songs.
The musical numbers, some co-written by Arthur Darville, and occasional dance sequences are designed to move the story along, rather like Sondheim using more realistic speech and dramatic purpose. They are never intrusive, only illustrative of a character’s state of mind, occasionally using a fantasy or memory relevant to the story.
Been So Long is the kind of film that comes along all too rarely; it is the London we all know, a celebration of the shady clubs, pubs and kebab shops as well as the small businesses and familiar high street that make Camden such a distinctive part of London. It’s also sweet, fun and gorgeous to look out, a truly British film that celebrates the extraordinary feeling of living in the everyday.
Release Date: 26 October on Netflix | Image: Contributed