The skinhead scenes dominate the second half. The first half is the story of a Nigerian boy’s childhood in the care of a working-class English family in the 1970s. This might be a misuse of the word “care”, given how tough this life is, but it’s a complex and mysterious story, made more interesting by the casting against type of Kate Beckinsale as Ingrid Carpenter. She plays the “mother” of a brood of Nigerian children, “farmed out” to her for money, while the Nigerian parents are studying in England.
This was a common practice among the first generations of Nigerian migrants to Britain, who were studying and working day and night to succeed. The film’s writer and director Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje (born 1967) was one of these children. In the movie, his parents hand him over as a newborn to Ingrid and her husband Jack (Lee Ross), after Ingrid has had two miscarriages. The boy is called Enitan, or Eni for short, and Ingrid never really warms to him. She prefers the girls, who are so numerous in this tiny house that they are hard to count. Eni grows up isolated and withdrawn, hiding behind the couch with his imaginary friends, while Ingrid and her gossiping girlfriends talk about avoiding the social workers and how to spend the money they are making off “farming”.
Outside the house, life for Eni and his “sisters” is a battlefield. They are the first black children in Tilbury and many of the whites hope they are the last. The local children are like tiny stormtroopers – the vanguard of the racism that will never let these newcomers forget how unwelcome they are. Eni grows up almost mute, with a profound sense of fear and insecurity – picked on by his white mother, beaten up by the neighbourhood kids. In high school, where he is played by Damson Idris in a star-making performance, the violence only escalates.
The gloom and bitterness make this film a challenge. Akinnouye-Agbaje spent about 14 years trying to get it made, so it is understandable he doesn’t want to leave anything out, but it might have helped if he had. His best work is in the home scenes, where Beckinsale makes Ingrid a complex character – loving and cuddling one minute, abusive and shrewish the next. She’s as hard and brittle as those tooth-breaking sweets they sell on English piers. “Don’ want none of my kids growin’ up soft”, she says at one point. Her mother (Ann Mitchell) tells her “not much chance of that”.
Akinnouye-Agbaje has a gift for characterisation. Even the skinheads are semi-rounded characters. The tone of the film is also unexpectedly lyrical – like a fairytale, albeit grimmer than Grimm. Unrelieved horror and violence can be enervating, but this film has the benefit of truth, and a message of survival. Whether that is enough to get you through it will be a personal matter. It’s a hard movie to forget.