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Keeping it unreal

Sugarhouse, a British gangsta thriller about yoof, drugs and street life, is a cartoon-like portrayal of social inequality.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Adapted by Dominic Leyton from his 2003 play Collision, Sugarhouse is a gangsterish thriller set on a London housing estate. Inauspicious as that sounds, it’s an interesting piece. Sidestepping both a Guy Ritchie style mockney knock-about and grim tales of life on the street, Sugarhouse is a tight, claustrophobic drama with a blunt message. Haves and have-nots are not so different, it shouts.

In other words, the lives of those denoted by the recently invigorated term ‘underclass’ are driven by the same needs and desires as those deemed too comfortable in their middle-class disdain. This tendency to preachiness does have limits. Running up against a social world less receptive to the judgement it would like to impart, Sugarhouse ultimately gives up on a realistic, if stagey, representation in favour of hopeless moralising and ridiculously attired bad guys. While it might be one in the eye for silk shirts and white trousers, Sugarhouse barely brushes the social edifice.

It starts off intriguingly. Following the graffiti fringed opening credits, Sugarhouse lands us in the company of Stephen Mackintosh’s Tom, at this point a nameless, suited figure, sat, listless and unshaven, aboard a Tube train. Alighting somewhere in the East End, we follow him, unblinking. Thick-necked stall holders bellow, women in Burkas hurry, yoofs loiter. ‘What you looking at, you prick?’ shouts one of the latter at our man out of place. This, the film might as well be telling us, is not simply some undefined part of Bow or Whitechapel; this, my middle-class interloper, is the underworld.

Fortunately, Tom hooks up with a native, a crack head called D, brilliantly played by Ashley Walters. D’s tics, his twitches, his sheer agitated purpose, and the wild involutions of speech don’t just evoke the drug addict but the Shakespearean fool. Perspicacity splinters his comedic gabbling. Unlike Shakespeare’s sages, however, D’s relation to Tom is not as immediately servile: he is selling him a gun. Upon this fraught exchange does the plot of Sugarhouse depend.

As the title of the original play suggests, this illicit transaction serves as a pretext for the film to explore its central theme, the collision of two separate worlds. Reflecting its crude conception of reality, Tom and D represent two aspects of the social divide, the moneyed – ‘Burberry coat. Nice.’ – and the moneyless. And the drama, in the main, derives from the tension between the two. Though a little theatrical, this is quite effective. For amidst the uncertainty of motive and intention, the dialogue develops its own propulsion, with each trying to fathom the other’s rationale. In doing so, they both gradually discover what they have in common, each recognising themselves in the other. However, for all this acknowledgement of their mutual humanity, where Tom has had opportunity, D has met with defeat. As the latter concludes, ‘what separates me and you? Poverty, fuckin’ poverty.’

As commendable a sentiment as it is, it’s hardly a penetrating insight. Yes, we’re invited to understand how D became what he is, indeed, to empathise, but there’s no sense of how things might be different. The problem is that the vision underpinning the piece is so thoroughly individuated that it provides no more than a moral standpoint. Poverty is simply deplored as a terrible thing, but, beyond the benevolence of individuals, there is no reason to suspect it can be overcome. Social and economic life, from this perspective, acquires a certain fatefulness, as the reality that inexorably is. As to how it becomes, nothing is ventured. The magnificent closing sweep of Tom walking away from D’s yard captures something of this alienated impasse. As the shot gradually opens up, reducing Tom to a speck, Canary Wharf looms on the horizon, its massiveness a symbol of the vast economic forces at work in the world before which the individual characters in the film are as ants.

Unfortunately, where it lacks realism – that is, the ability to capture something essential about objective reality in terms of the turbulent interaction of its subjects, or as one critic once put it, ‘the inner poetry of life’ – it seeks refuge in the larger-than-life. The chief culprit is Andy Serkis’ ex Loyalist thug, Hoodwink, the estate’s top man, and a character so cartoonish he should speak in speech bubbles. With a snake tattoo stretching from each calf to each buttock, over which ‘No Surrender’ is emblazoned, his role is to storm around and look really, really peeved. While this might be quite funny in itself, overall it just feels like a loss of nerve. Fearful of the material’s limitations, perhaps even embarrassed by its Play for Today primness, its makers retreat into the easy viscera of Brit hardman cliché; coke snorting, steroidal rages and a techno music signature tune.

Sugarhouse ultimately seems a confused endeavour. Lacking a nuanced enough social vision with which to develop its central dramatic premise, that is, a collision between two social types, it fleshes itself out with caricatures and genre-standard bilge. Giving up on a dramatisation of real antagonisms in favour of their cartoonish negation is no victory, however. It merely signifies the gap between the creators’ vision and the social world that is their material.

Tim Black is a regular film and TV reviewer for spiked and is on the committee for the Battle of Ideas festival.

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