Mile End is a compelling psychological thriller which recently premiered at the Raindance Film Festival, where it was nominated for best feature. It centres around Paul (Alex Humes), a thirty-something Londoner who has just lost his job and decides to take up running in response.
Paul is living with his girlfriend, Kate (Heidi Agerholm Balle), but it is clear that he is a loner who prefers to keep his feelings to himself. He does not tell Kate about his dismissal for a month because he wants to avoid “endless discussions”; he even refuses to reveal his first name after it emerges that Paul is his middle name.
When he takes up running he is initially mentored by Adrian, a banker friend whose smug superiority is neatly played by Valmike Rampersad. After an injury he starts running alone until he is befriended by John (Mark Arnold), an older man who seems, from the beginning, to know more about Paul than is healthy. John persuades Paul to participate in situations which Paul is not comfortable with; as a prototypical bully or abuser he starts with small transgressions (stealing tins of paint) but moves to more serious crimes, with Paul protesting but failing to break away from him. John manipulates Paul, sometimes clumsily, but even this rings true.
Paul is a complex character whose inconsistencies make him seem more rather than less plausible. He conceals things from Kate, but he sticks up for her when John criticises her; he seems uncommitted to the relationship but signals his desire to start a family by leaving a pair of baby bootees on her pillow. John, too, is complicated: friendly but domineering; generous yet sadistic; confident yet needy. In one disturbingly well-observed vignette, John prays for a child who has died. His prayer is completely convincing and authentically expressed, but his grabbing of Paul’s hand is typically domineering and we feel Paul’s awkwardness keenly.
There are many satisfying ambiguities in the film. When rusty water comes out of Paul’s taps, has their flat been sabotaged? Who writes “It’s your life” on Paul’s bathroom mirror? How is it that John appears in Paul’s flat at odd times of the night? Kate asks Paul, “Who were you talking to?” and he answers, “No one” – is he dissembling as he does on other occasions?
These ambiguities make the rising tension in the film even more uncomfortable. We are left wondering exactly who is in danger and who is responsible as sinister events take place. At first it seems that Paul and those close to him are at risk from John, whose obsessiveness and lack of control are brought to light; but as the story gradually unfolds a more complex picture emerges.
There are also moments of levity in this tense film, however—notably a scene where Paul is being interviewed for a new job. Interviewer, interviewee and audience groan inwardly as the inevitable question and answer comes: “What are your weaknesses?” “I’m a perfectionist.” Before the interview, when we see Paul coaching himself, all he can do is chant “Team… Team… Team” and finally explode, “I need a job! My girlfriend’s driving me crazy!”
The director, Graham Higgins, has a touch of the impressionist painter in his deft use of changing climate and times of day to bring out the beauty of the London cityscape. The palette of the film is stylishly monochrome, but touches of red discreetly signal danger too.
The score, by Ed Scolding, moves from harmony to discord, adding considerably to the tension and sense of foreboding. Elsewhere, percussive elements draw us in to Paul’s obsession and anxiety.
The scale of this self-financed film is inevitably small, but Graham Higgins has produced something stylish and thought-provoking. His film is for adults but—unusually—there is very little which is unsuitable for older children. (It made a pleasant change for me to be able to watch a good film in the company of my teenagers.) Higgins’s wittily titled Mile End brings us a fresh view of a London he clearly knows and loves and a disturbing insight into what happens if our darker dreams come true. I hope there is more to come from this talented writer and director.