Title: Been So Long
Production company: Greenacre
Producers: Amanda Jenks, Nadine Marsh-Edwards,
Screenplay: Che Walker
Cinematography: Catherine Derry
Editing: Peter Christelis
Production Design: Julian Nagel
Music: Arthur Darvill, Christopher Nicholas Bangs
Main cast: Michaela Coel, Arinze Kene, Ronke Adekoluejo, George MacKay
Director: Tinge Krishnan. UK, 2018.
Screen: October 2018
Seven years after her debut film Junkhearts screened at the London Film Festival, director Tinge Krishnan returns with Been So Long, set to bow on Netflix on October 26 but screening first as a Special Presentation at the same festival. Fortunately, this vibrant musical love story is a rather more upbeat prospect than her first work. As established in the colourful opening musical number, in which the historic markets of Camden are transformed into a joyous streetdance, Che Walker’s adaptation of his own 1998 play — reimagined as a stage musical in in 2009 — seems to paint London as a town of optimistic possibility. That, together with the rising star power of Michaela Coel (Channel 4’s Chewing Gum), should pull in numbers for the SVOD giant.
Ronke Adekoluejo is a particular standout
On the surface, this is a fairly standard love-conquers-all narrative, complete with familiar beats; the excitement of initial chemistry gives way to doubts, mistakes are made, decisions are hard-fought and, eventually, fate finds its way. Been So Long is, however, given additional texture thanks to its black female focus. Working from Walker’s astute screenplay, Coel is excellent as determined single mother Simone, unwilling to admit her vulnerabilities – her desire to protect her disabled daughter both admirable and an obvious smokescreen for her own fears. Ronke Adekoluejo is a particular standout as her brash best friend Yvonne, a fiercely proud woman entirely in control of her own sexual identity, whose character arc also calls for some genuinely moving soul searching of her own.
Simone has worked hard to create a safe bubble for herself and her young girl — “It’s me and you against the world” is her constant refrain — but when she meets Raymond (Arinze Kene), recently out of prison and working to get back on his feet, their instant connection is like an emotional wrecking ball. While Yvonne encourages her to spread her wings — “Your vagina called me, and told me it’s dying,” she admonishes — Simone finds herself locked in a battle between past mistakes and future happiness.
Indeed, the entire cast, which also features George MacKay as a troubled young addict, shoulders the story with energy and personality; no mean feat when it also requires them to belt out Arthur Darvill’s original songs (rearranged for the screen by music producer and score composer Christopher Nicholas Bangs) and carry out some intricate choreography. While all are confidently handled by Krishnan, some of these moments work better than others — Yvonne’s ‘I Want A Fella’ is a raucous, feminist highlight, while Raymond’s bar seduction song is, perhaps intentionally, rather more awkward.
Crucially, underneath the music and the soft-focus romance Been So Long makes some poignant observations about community, family and the importance of connection. Most obviously, that plays out in Simone’s personal experiences; that her own father left her mother, and her daughter’s father also walked out, has clearly shaped the cautious, independent woman she is today. It’s also important that, even as she falls in love with Raymond, it’s Simone’s relationship with her daughter and Yvonne that are the strongest in the film, and the ones she works hardest to maintain.
In a wider sense, Been So Long also highlights how traditional social structures are being eroded. “People don’t want inclusivity, they want exclusivity,” says the owner of a new local bar and, as cinematographer Catherine Derry lingers on the fading facades and shuttered buildings of Camden, it’s a reminder of how gentrification is redrawing the lines of community there. But, as her camera drinks in the stunning London skyline, or vivid sequences of people from all walks of life dancing in unison, it’s also clear that the film’s message is rather more optimistic. If we’re open to new experiences, and new people, we can still find our place.