County Lines

 

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A timely film with an outstanding lead performance but which nevertheless falls short.

 
County Lines

 

Although I found this film to be a sad disappointment, two things are very much to its credit. One is the remarkably sure-footed performance by its leading actor, Conrad Khan, who plays Tyler, the 14-year-old London boy at the centre of the story. The other is down to the intentions of the writer/director Henry Blake, whose admirable aim was to make a film that would stand both as a warning and as a cry for the need to do something to counter the way in which so many youngsters are exploited to become drug runners. A written statement at the close refers to the numbers in this country exceeding 10,000 with children as young as eleven being involved while the title itself supplies us with the context: the term county lines relates to dealers based in big cities such as London who supply drugs to less central locations including coastal resorts frequently favouring youngsters as couriers.

 

Blake, himself employed as a youth worker, knows whereof he writes, but unfortunately that does not render him an adroit filmmaker. He focusses on what should be a simple story, one that shows how Tyler in trouble at school and with a neglectful mother (Ashley Madekwe) becomes, in effect, the man of the house to support her and his younger sister (Tabitha Milne-Price). The way in which he does this is to avoid school and to earn money by dealing drugs for Simon (Harris Dickinson) who supplies those who contact him online. This involves Tyler in trips out of London and the film's several coastal scenes were shot on Canvey Island. But then Tyler gets in out of his depth and starts to pay the price when he takes some of the money due to Simon and attracts the violent attentions of rival dealers.

 

However, while the situation rings true, the story as written by Blake is at times far less clear-cut as a narrative than it should be and the characterisation is weak. In particular, the mother, Toni, never comes fully into focus. She is a single mother seemingly leading an unsatisfactory life, ultimately losing her job and ready to acknowledge that she behaves badly: but the details to flesh this out are missing and by the close she has suddenly converted into an almost angelic figure. For that matter Tyler's first scenes suggest a straightforward well-behaved boy which fits ill with the revelation that he is regularly troublesome at school (Toni blames this not on him but on the fact that the other boys there bully him, but again there is little or no clarification).

 

As director, in spite of displaying a number of individual touches, Blake fares no better. For such a grim story a subdued colour palette might seem appropriate but I have rarely seen a film so intent on being dark, a style that extends to faces frequently being seen in shadow. This is not an approach that draws an audience in and the strong performances (Dickinson sadly given no more than an underdeveloped cameo role, but he's fine) cannot overcome this. We watch totally detached even though appreciative of Blake's motives and of the importance of his subject matter, but I for one was totally unable to admire County Lines as cinema.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Conrad Khan, Ashley Madekwe, Harris Dickinson, Tabitha Milne-Price, Marcus Rutherford, Anthony Adjekum, Chizzy Akudolu, Ebenezer Hyau, Johanna Stanton, Carlyss Peer, Stephen Leask.

 

Dir Henry Blake, Pro Victoria Bavister and David Broder, Screenplay Henry Blake, Ph Sverre Sørdal, Pro Des Phoebe Darling, Ed Paco Sweetman, Music James Pickering, Costumes Sharon Long.

 

Two Birds & Loupe Films production/Dam Films/Pia Pressure/Belga Productions-BFI Distribution.
90 mins. UK/Belgium. 2019. Rel: 4 December 2020. Cert. 15.