Drugs and violent crime trigger a surprising religious conversion for a small-time gangster in London’s East End, in a story that reflects a changing urban society.
Eastern Promisesby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Inside this film is another, much more original, film that is trying to break out, but which never fully succeeds in doing so. Snow In Paradise is set in Hoxton, a grimy inner-city part of London that’s being gentrified. It’s where working-class old-school East End gangsters now rub shoulders uncomfortably with middle-class hipsters. But those are only two ingredients of Hoxton’s melting pot. The third is the Muslim immigrant community, its influence visible in the dome of the mosque dominating the city skyline of grey concrete slabs of council flats. And what’s so unusual about this crime story is its sympathetic portrayal of Islam and its influence in the inner city. How Dave (a strong break-out performance in an unsympathetic role from Frederick Schmidt, graduating from the excellent Starred Up) makes his own accommodation between these three uneasily cohabiting communities is really what this film is about. As he says, you’ve got to “move with the times”.
Dave is unemployed and broke, doing small jobs for his gangster Uncle Jimmy (played rather stiffly by actor Martin Askew, who also wrote the screenplay, which is intriguingly based on his own previous life of crime and conversion to Islam). Dave is trying to earn Jimmy’s approval and is dependent on his handouts. To do a good turn for his best friend Tariq (an engaging Aymen Hamdouchi), an aspiring rapper, Dave invites him to earn some cash by helping him deliver a suitcase of cocaine for one of Jimmy’s deals. But, unlike Dave’s generation and its friendships, which are the products of the multicultural society they grew up in, the hard men of Jimmy’s generation are outspoken in their prejudice against anyone they term a ‘Paki’, even if they are second generation like Tariq, and their resentment at his inclusion takes an extreme form. Stupidly, Dave keeps back for his own use one of the blocks of cocaine he’s supposed to hand over to the buyers. This sets tragedy in motion. Dave gets further out of his depth trying to prove his loyalty to Jimmy. The botched deal pulls Dave in two directions, between his uncle and his father’s friend, crafty, chatty Uncle Micky (David Spinx, formerly Keith from EastEnders), who tries to win Dave over to a more traditional form of crime.
Tariq disappears without explanation and Dave searches for him at his mosque. Then, torturing himself when he realises he is responsible for what has happened, he returns to the mosque in the throes of a breakdown, and is welcomed by the sympathetic young imam (Ashley Chin) into a world that seems to him the opposite of everything he has known. Unlike the muddy palette of the streets outside, the mosque is shot suffused with light. Its atmosphere is calm and spiritual. In it, Dave finds sanctuary and a peace that doesn’t exist for him in the violent world he inhabits outside. But his conversion happens too quickly – within a couple of short scenes and a montage of his cleansing stay in the mosque – to be realistic, so this potentially very interesting twist on the usual gangster story is unfortunately not as fully exploited as it could have been.
The dialogue veers between self-conscious Mockney patois and contemporary urban youthspeak, both with a rather clunky feel that hammers the film’s themes home. ‘Proper’, as the definition of gangland approval, is repeated countless times. The gangster ‘family’ relies on ‘rules’ being obeyed, with it understood that there are horrific punishments for anyone who breaks them – “you must live by the rules or face the consequences” is another phrase that’s endlessly repeated. And this gangster emphasis on rules is echoed by the imam in his explanation to Dave of Islam as providing the rules that people need to live by. Perhaps implicit within Dave’s conversion is that perhaps he has simply exchanged one set of rules for another.
Director Andrew Hulme (whose previous credits are as an editor) tells the story very competently, but some sequences to embellish the action use hallucinations and flashbacks confusingly. One such involves Dave’s girlfriend Theresa (Claire-Louise Caldwell), a single-mother prostitute, one of only two women in the film, and whose role seems only incidental and not fully explained. And the title? The snow, of course, is the cocaine. Paradise is to Dave – at first – green, leafy Essex, where Uncle Micky has made good, living in a mansion, seemingly having profited and escaped from crime. But perhaps in the end it is the bright, open mosque, where Dave seems to find his own kind of paradise – or is he still going round in circles? The final shot is ambiguous.
Snow In Paradise is released on 13th February 2015 in the UK