The story behind this film is that it was made for buttons (£3,500) by 20something Londoner Greg Hall, and was then beginning the long slow slide towards festival obscurity when Mike Leigh saw it, started championing it, and hey presto, it has a cinema release. The story at its front is about an culturally and ethnically mixed crew of young, urban Londoners from a council estate. They walk the line between high spirits and illegality, these self-assured youngsters, but suddenly get into trouble by straying beyond the world of tagging, pills and parties.
If it isn’t tied up maybe as well as it should be, The Plague has enough of a plot to act as a frame for some very attractive work. The acting is unusually good, especially for a debut film, and Hall appears to have followed Mike Leigh’s practices to some extent – rehearse your actors, give them enough knowledge of their characters, then let them improvise the scenes naturalistically. Paco Sweetman’s editing is also very strong, a bit jump-cut happy occasionally, but he has a natural gift (could be him or Greg Hall, not sure who) for coming into a scene late and leaving early. This doesn’t just pique our interest, it gives the film a forward drive, as if the whole thing were leaning into the future, and us with it. Ensemble scenes are well handled, particularly the ones where the girls just sit around, chatting, sending texts, putting on make-up, swigging Bacardi Breezers, while in the boys’ camp we learn just how hard it is to break up a big block of hashish for resale – little but telling details. Drugs are everywhere in The Plague.
Of course it’s a cautionary tale, which is a slight disappointment, a Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels done with much of the comedy hosed off, though there are still plenty of humorous moments – except here we’re much more likely to be applauding the characters’ lightning comebacks than laughing at their failure to be Mensa smart. For the most part, though, it’s a tangle of loose, conversation-over-conversation scenes, rich in street atmosphere, so individually pungent that the big-drama finish, when it arrives, does seem to pop up out of nowhere. The same focus on people rather than drama also explains the other lapse: side characters are sketchy at best – enter the cardboard coppers.
It’s not a perfect film, in other words, but the good bits are so good, the talent so raw and right, the conjuring of character and mood and milieu so well executed that The Plague‘s odd weakness can be forgiven. If the test of any debut is that you want to see what the director is going to do next, then The Plague easily passes.
© Steve Morrissey 2006