By Patrick Ward
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This article is over 14 years, 8 months old
Director: Gary Love; Release date: out now
Issue 317

If experience has taught me anything it is to be wary of films about East End gangsters. I never quite regained faith in the genre after watching Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. But, thankfully, Gary Love’s Sugarhouse is nothing like that, and it almost feels like an insult to mention both films in the same paragraph.

It can be the easy option for filmmakers to set about glorifying the drug abuse, prostitution, gangsters and violence rife in poverty stricken East London. There have been far too many movies from the likes of Guy Ritchie in which London is a gangland playground for people to do terrible things to one another, and themselves, for the sake of greed and prestige.

Not so with Sugarhouse – the thread of realism running through the film is that of poverty.

The two protagonists are from very different backgrounds. Steven Mackintosh (who played Winston in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but gives an amazing performance in this) plays Tom, the city boy down on his luck, and Ashley Walters (best known as So Solid Crew’s Asher D) gives one of the best performances I have ever seen as crack addict D. There are no dodgy mockney accents here with clumsy rhyming slang for the entertainment of a foreign market. Instead we have the true mix of contemporary language from the street, pulled off brilliantly.

Tom is trying to buy a gun from D – for reasons apparent later in the film – but this isn’t the sort of transaction he is used to in Docklands skyscrapers. When D tries to pull a fast one on Tom, local kingpin Hoodwink gets involved. Hoodwink, played by Andy Serkis (who also played Gollum in Lord of the Rings) is a vicious killer, keeping people in check with a mixture of violence and enslavement to crack cocaine.

But, yet again, it is not as simple as this. Hoodwink, his body covered with loyalist tattoos, is clearly better off than others on his Bow estate, but he is also caught up in the poverty trap. He appears to keep concern for his pregnant girlfriend, and the need to stay up to speed with those unlucky enough to owe him money, at the heart of his campaign of terror. That isn’t to say you end up with any particular sympathy for him, but it illustrates the complexity of the cycle of poverty, and the consequences for everyone it throws up.

Sugarhouse is an adaptation of the theatre production Collision, and if I have to be slightly critical I would say that not much is gained through the transition to film. The action is mainly set in two rooms, and, while there is nothing wrong with the direction, there’s nothing much that required it to move to the big screen.

Having said that, if this allows the production to reach a wider audience that’s fine by me. It is also worth noting that it is character driven, the plot isn’t necessarily the strongest I have ever seen, but the message it gets across and the brilliant character development more than makes up for that.

Sugarhouse gives a realistic portrait of the other side of London. Away from the megabuck bonuses of the Square Mile we see a community crippled with despair. This shows how things can only get better through tackling poverty itself.

If you watch this and then listen to home secretary Jacqui Smith talk about tackling crime through Asbos and drafting tougher drugs laws, you start to realise that this work of fiction is far more in the realms of reality than Labour’s attempts to target the victims on the council estates, instead of the wallet packers of the City.

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