By Stephen Mayne @finalreel thefinalreel.co.uk
The premise at the heart of Snow in Paradise, director Andrew Hulme’s debut film, is an intriguing one. Based loosely on the life of Martin Askew who broke out of crime by converting to Islam (he also co-writes and stars as Uncle Jimmy here), the film follows Dave (Frederick Schmidt), a petty criminal in London who turns to Islam after his actions create irreversible consequences.
Hulme, having racked up a good two decades of experience as a film editor, including work for the likes of director Anton Corbijn (Control and The American), certainly brings ideas to bear on his directorial and writing debut. The problem is less one of originality and more of excess. There’s plenty to admire here, and a fair amount that should have been cut back.
Snow in Paradise may parade criminals through London but it keeps well away from the grubby Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels knock-offs that blighted British cinema for years after the release of Guy Ritchie’s film. Turning a tiny budget into a virtue, Hulme keeps the camera close. The frame barely ever widens to capture the sprawling capital around Dave. He’s a man trapped by his surroundings and his restricted view reflects this.
Dave’s interactions ring with a similarly narrow authenticity. He cruises around with his mate Tariq (Aymen Hamdouchi) exchanging partial conversation. The bond is clear in body language and Tariq’s disappearance after Dave ropes him into a drug deal feels like a devastating event in his life, not a neat plot development.
There’s to be no verbose speechmaking and gushing emotion elsewhere either. He treats his prostitute girlfriend Theresa (Claire-Louise Cordwell) with respect despite crude provocations from those around him, and sticks to an expression of wariness with family friend Micky (David Spinx) who might genuinely want to help him, and Jimmy who clearly doesn’t. Dave is trapped in this world and trapped in his own head. Only a drastic change – in this case the possibilities offered by Islam, treated with a rare absence of negativity– offers an exit.
The screenplay delicately handles Dave’s shift towards IslCam. Ignoring the global tensions that coat most attempts to address the faith in a western context, Hulme and Askew focus on the personal impact faith has, rather than veering off into a staid culture clash narrative. Hulme achieves something similar with his depiction of London. The streets are free of both the sugary varnish Richard Curtis layers on, and the grim nightmare scenario then normally emerges in gritty urban dramas. Instead, it actually feels like London.
While Hulme gets a lot right, his inexperience bursts out regularly as well. Aiming above the generic coming of age journey; many efforts to conjure up an existential mood fall flat. The varied musical choices work superbly. Slow motion and freezes don’t, jarring the screen unexpectedly. It feels at times like a film student experimenting with the full range of techniques recently learned.
There’s also an abundance of themes thrown into the mix. Hulme and Askew go overboard trying to keep away from London gangster conventions. Family relations between Dave, Jimmy and Micky never advance much beyond cryptic warnings. The gentrification of London offers an interesting diversion, but his relationship with Theresa, a fascinating mini-development, is never allowed to move beyond a few brief scenes. Too many faces pop up in pubs and on streets corners without ever truly entering Dave’s life. Sometimes, the narrow focus cuts even the main character down too much.
If Dave is sometimes short-changed, it’s not the fault of Schmidt. Plucked off the streets to audition, he’s a revelation in the lead role. With no prior acting experience, he puts in a powerful, nuanced performance. Built like a tank and almost permanently uncertain, Schmidt makes Dave feel like a man out of place. When he rails at hipsters photographing shoes and serving only organic beer, it’s Dave’s own inability to bend with the times that surfaces. His flinty interactions at a nearby Mosque that gradually blossom into a desperate need for help never feel forced. When the film dips, Schmidt keeps it afloat.
Snow in Paradise is a debut of great promise and patchy delivery. Parts work brilliantly; particularly Schmidt’s performance and Hulme’s willingness to experiment visually. But it does often feel like an experiment. Unable to rein in all his ideas, the film is marked by creative excess. Better excess than a deficit of ideas though.
Snow in Paradise is on general release from February 13th.