A Midautumn Night’s Dream by Tom Jennings
[film review published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 2, January 2007]
Mischief Night, dir. Penny Woolcock, UK, 2006
Its writer/director wanted Mischief Night to be ‘a very silly film about very serious issues’. Tom Jennings judges it spot on.
Penny Woolcock’s Channel 4 stories set in Leeds (Tina Goes Shopping, 1999; Tina Takes A Break, 2001) located their Cutting Edge credentials in characters and events being fictionalised from the laboriously recorded experiences of estate residents, who also provided the casts. However, an equally radical departure was to carefully depict the everyday life of the UK urban deprived, rather than merely their reactions to the crises and traumas which social realist melodrama normally agonises about. Instead emphasising the resourcefulness, humour and inventiveness of a contemporary underclass struggling to stay materially and emotionally afloat, the films reportedly inspired Paul Abbott to embellish his biographical reminiscences into Shameless – with the latter’s success prompting its production company to commission the cinematic completion of the Tina trilogy in Mischief Night.
The film’s 2005 shoot coincided with the London bombings and subsequent police activity in Beeston (where three of the perpetrators came from and who some of the street-cast actors knew), adding immediacy to the intention to understand and undermine through comedy the increasing spatial and educational segregation of British Asians from their neighbours. The drama develops from the legacies of far closer interaction a few years ago, centering on the redoubtable Tina Crabtree (Kelli Hollis) striving for a secure home set-up for her three kids (by different fathers: “all wankers”). Their various preoccupations yield multiple storylines and diverse connections with the equally embattled, fractious and conflicted Khan family from across Crossflats Park in the days leading up to November 4th – the annual Mischief Night sanctioning relatively benign juvenile delinquency (egged cars, soaped windows, flaming dogshit) to complement the more mundane pervasive disrespect and darker anti-sociability of drugs, racism, crime and violence.
With design and cinematography magnifying social warmth and vitality in the area despite its divisions, the bhangra and new beats soundtrack similarly militates against grey grim cliché as the wit and mayhem accelerate and resolve into a generational contrast of multiracial hope. Ex-con waiter Immie (Ramon Tikaram) and Tina rekindle their adolescent romance to escape unhappy situations, requiring decisive breaks with backward-looking traditions – him leaving his family and her escaping the cycle of community despair presided over by her dad, crime boss Don (Gwynne Hollis). Meanwhile, young teenagers Kimberley and Asif (Holly Kenny and Qasim Akhtar) pursue their own quests, which converge on Immie’s old mate, druglord Qassim (Christopher Simpson). They succeed only by forging a more open friendship based on mutual generosity, a desire for autonomy, and an awareness of the limitations of parental choices – working-through rather than wishing-away the toxic power relations of the past in serving the needs of the future.
Looking for deterministic narrative arcs rather misses the point, however – an urge itself obliquely lampooned in the Big Men’s hot air ballooning fetish. This deft condensation of joyriding, lifestyle aspiration, and the Northern kitchen sink ritual of climbing the hill and looking down on the town, leaves Don and his lieutenants flailing out of control of their territory. The flight ends impaled on the mosque tower, thus crudely counterposing failed Western secular dreams of mastery to the comparable impotence of the Muslim hierarchy in dealing with today’s complexities. Here the elders enlist Qassim’s criminal muscle to repel takeover by fundamentalists (whose imam’s ridiculous sermonising is taken verbatim from Abu Hamza speeches). Throughout the film such plot absurdities likewise signal the humility of the film-maker in relinquishing authorial omnipotence – instead bravely weaving the weft and warp of meticulously collected grass-roots anecdotes, banter and repartee to demolish pretension, free up energy and facilitate agency.
Fittingly, the children’s exploration of Mischief Night’s mysterious adult world provides most of the bite, blithely juggling real danger and heartache with naïve sass and insight. Macauley (Tina’s youngest) and friends grapple with the insanities of respectability (“My mam’s a smackhead”. “Mine’s a dinner-lady”), attracted to the relatively well-off ‘Death Row’ whose denizens – paedophiles, gangsters, lesbians – mythically link poshness with perversion. While joyrider Asif views Osama bin Laden screensavers and jihad videos as comic relief from being pressganged into drug-dealing, Tyler’s apprenticeship to grandad Don entails blundering around junkie mums and courier grans. And whereas Kimberley eventually shoots her newly-found Pakistani father, Immie’s younger sister Sarina articulates her transcendence of patriarchy in the local urban music nightclub – a temporary autonomous zone where lower-class youth of all races enjoy their own hybrid culture in relative peace away from the vexing intransigence elsewhere.
Cross-matching and cross-fertilising the corrosive fissures and prejudices of white and Asian communities, the film’s hilarity consistently erodes stereotypes by remaining rooted in working-class neighbourhoods. Here, despite intense material pressures, upward mobility’s false promises are just as destructive as the baleful allure of the law of the criminal jungle in crystallising vicious circles of isolation. The desperate rearguard defence of ancestral families provides no inoculation, merely locking the generations into perpetual misery and the submission to oppression which carnival has always had the function of momentarily overturning. In fact, though now celebrated only in Yorkshire, the druidic origins of Mischief Night – a time when fairies walk the earth – predate Hallowe’en and Guy Fawkes by many centuries. While hardly supernatural, the outcomes of this highly unusual urban fairytale, “with its head in the clouds and its feet on the ground” (Woolcock), might also seem somewhat improbable. Nevertheless, its ambitious alchemy – of pragmatic irreverence for authority, laughing-off of adversity, and imaginative empathy and engagement – updates age-old formulae for survival, solidarity and resistance which are still applicable throughout the land.