Is there anything that Michaela Coel can’t do at this point? The writer and actress came to people’s attention a few years back when her stage show “Chewing Gum” became a British comedy series, picking her up a BAFTA and fans in the U.S thanks to a growing cult following on Netflix. Since then, Coel’s continued to impress as she’s moved into more dramatic territory — first with a couple of roles in “Black Mirror,” then more recently in Hugo Blick’s excellent BBC miniseries “Black Earth Rising” alongside John Goodman (which will also head to Netflix globally in the new year).
For her first big-screen leading role in Tinge Krishnan’s “Been So Long,” Coel’s taking on a genre that’s seen some of the biggest stars in film history, from Robert De Niro to Tom Cruise, come a cropper — the musical. But Coel and the rest of the fast-rising cast acquit themselves beautifully in a film that isn’t without its problems but ultimately coheres into a proper crowd-pleaser.
Based on the play by Ché Walker (subsequently revived as a musical at the Young Vic Theatre in 2009 with songs by Arthur Darvill – yes, the Arthur Darvill best known as a “Doctor Who” companion alongside Matt Smith and Karen Gillan), it follows a constellation of characters living in Camden Town, one of London’s more colourful and characterful areas (coincidentally, also where this writer hails from). Coel’s Simone is a single mother whose devotion to her daughter means that sex and romance haven’t been on her radar in a while, much to the disgust of her best mate Yvonne (Ronke Adekoluejo), who’s keen to cling to her party days.
Meanwhile, Raymond (Arinzé Kene, who’s currently wowing the West End in his one-man show “Misty”) has just been released from prison after serving three years inside and is keen to make up for lost time, even if he has to wear an ankle bracelet and live with his mum. But he’s being followed by the troubled Gil (the omnipresent George MacKay), who may be trouble. Also in the picture are lovelorn landlord Barney (Luke Norris), whose pub is hitting financial difficulties, and Simone’s ex-partner, and father of her daughter, Kestrel (“Game Of Thrones” actor Joe Dempsie).
It’s a cast full of the sort of faces that regularly pop up on ones-to-watch lists, and it’s the biggest thing that “Been So Long” has going for it. “Chewing Gum” fans will know how talented Coel is, but she’s particularly good here with a role that’s more adult and serious than her breakout turn (while still letting her have some fun occasionally). Kene is a less familiar presence on screen (he’s reprising his stage role here), but it feels like a bit of a star-is-born moment watching him — he’s got charisma to burn, and a ton of chemistry with his on-screen partner. Their romance feels likely, like previous Netflix movies (the service bought the film last year, their biggest UK acquisition to date), to birth a million Tumblr gifs.
But thanks to Walker’s generous, humane screenplay, the rest of the cast get a lot to play with too, with Adekolueio, Norris, and Dempsie, standing out in particular, giving depth to characters that might have been stereotypes otherwise. In what feels oddly unusual for a musical today, they can all sing quite well too — there’s no Pierce Brosnan letting the side down in any of the (numerous) songs too.
As for the musical aspect themselves, your mileage may vary: there were a few that I quite liked, but it doesn’t feel like any are destined to be joining the karaoke rotation any time soon. Krishnan stages the duets and solo numbers well on the whole – there’s a duet between Coel and Kene staged atop picturesque Primrose Hill that almost feels like a British answer to the “A Lovely Night” sequence in “La La Land” – but struggles a bit more with big group sequences, partly because, you suspect, budgetary limitations, but partly because of slightly over-choppy editing that’s a running problem throughout the film.
For the most part, though, Krishnan does a lovely job of creating a genuinely swoonsome urban fairytale. There’s a terrific sense of place here – Camden not as a tourist trap, but as the place behind that, ever-present Overground trains running through the background like arteries. And it’s a film that really pops with expressionistic color – DP Catherine Derry is definitely someone to keep an eye on – while not romanticizing its surroundings to the point of rose-tinting.
The film’s major misstep is one that’s presumably carried over to some extent from the source material. Mackay’s character Gil is seemingly mentally ill, stalking Raymond over a perceived slight, but the film largely plays it for laughs in a way that feels both glib and tonally jarring against the nuance and charm of the rest of the picture.
Still, that aside, there’s a lot to appreciate here. Few things make the heart sink in advance than ‘low-budget British musical,’ but it’s a credit to Krishnan, Walker and the rest of the team that, after a slightly rocky start, I felt fully won over by the end of the film. There’s clearly a hunger for musicals out there at the minute — if “The Greatest Showman” can make that much money, clearly there’s an audience for more — and it wouldn’t be a shock if this becomes a repeat-view Netflix staple for many. [B]
“Been So Long” hits Netflix worldwide on October 26th.