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SNOW IN PARADISE
February 11, 2015
The East End of classic London-set crime movies doesn’t really exist anymore. Between years of widespread and varied immigration into the area and, more recently, the gentrification and hipsterification that’s spread out of Shoreditch, the east London of the traditional cockney gangster may well be a relic of the past.
It’s with that in mind that Snow in Paradise steps into the scene, a take on London crime that’s well aware of the changing face of the city’s criminal underworld. Based on the life of scriptwriter Martin Askew (who also appears in the film – though as the vicious Uncle Jimmy, not himself), the film centres on Dave, a Hoxton native struggling to understand the spread of trendy cafés and middle class people who won’t look him in the eyes.
Dave aspires to a life of crime, though more out of a sense of inevitability than any real desire. He finds himself caught between the influence of two rivals: his openly cruel uncle Jimmy, who’s quick to both anger and bloodshed; and his late father’s friend Micky, who offers at least the hope of a more peaceful approach.
Things come to a head when Dave’s best friend, Tariq, is killed after a deal gone bad. While the film plays with the question of who killed him – and, separately perhaps, who is responsible for the death – the real focus is on Dave himself, as he unravels under the pressure of the life he chose for himself.
By far the film’s most interesting strand is Dave’s turn to Islam to help him cope. Askew really did convert to the religion, and the mosque-set scenes where we see his proxy grapple with a mindset totally alien to his own, and yet promising exactly what he’s looking for, show the film in its best light.
Unfortunately, these scenes are a bit too little too late, buried under the otherwise rather rote gangster plot for most of the film’s running time. Stuck in the back half of the film, the script never devotes enough time to what is surely its most unique aspect. The presentation of Islam, and Dave’s journey towards it, are left sadly underdeveloped.
Similarly, the question of the gentrification of London’s poverty-stricken east is gestured at but left hanging. The film’s striking opening scene, as Dave and Tariq peer through the windows at the denizens of a Hoxton café, is the closest we get to a real discussion of the topic, which is only given lip service later on.
Askew and co-writer/director Andrew Hulme have struck on fertile ground for an interesting take on the East End gangster, but seemingly lacked the confidence to throw the film more deeply into either Islam or gentrification, instead falling back too often on the gritty gangster trappings we’re all too familiar with from countless other works in the genre.
Frederick Schmidt makes a strong case for himself as a talent to watch. His Dave is bluster and bravado with a constant hint of uncertainty, a kid who knows he can’t live up to his own hype. He plays the darkest moments with a commendable subtlety, avoiding the temptation to devolve into theatrics. Askew is a slight disappointment as Jimmy, presenting an almost comic book-ish villain at odds with the stark, realist tone of the rest of the film.
Honourable mention must also go to Claire-Louise Cordwell, who works hard in the film’s single significant female role, and one that fights against her to be as thankless as possible. She’s a single mother, a drug addict and a prostitute – the holy trinity of grim, depressing female supporting characters. Cordwell fights to make Theresa memorable in a film that constantly deprives her of agency, battling a script that simply uses her to either explore Dave’s own issues or serve as the butt of crude jokes.
If you’re starved for a fresh take on the gangster movie, then Snow In Paradise may well be worth a watch. If only it didn’t squander a fascinating premise and strong central issues in a quagmire of sexist gangster clichés. It remains an interesting and worthy film, but one that is more thoughtful than thought-provoking – it has interesting ideas, but is unlikely to leave audiences grappling with them after the credits roll.
Snow In Paradise is released in UK cinemas on February 13th