Been So Long review – Michaela Coel tremendous in movie musical

Coel and Arinzé Kene are captivating as an unlikely couple who meet on a night out in Camden in this beguiling love story

Been So Long is a likable movie with a big heart. A contemporary romantic musical set in Camden, north London, it is based on the original Young Vic stage production, with music and lyrics by Arthur Darvill and book by Ché Walker. The director is Tinge Krishnan, who made the tough urban drama Junkhearts in 2011.

The film gives us a beguiling love story: Simone (Michaela Coel, from TV’s Chewing Gum) is a serious-minded single mother of a disabled child who, in spite of herself, falls for Raymond (Arinzé Kene), a tough man just out of prison for a chaotic, non-violent crime which he now bitterly regrets. He is now living at home with his mum and working for the council. The relationship of Simone and Raymond has enormous warmth and emotional generosity, and I could happily watch an entire film about these characters alone. And the city itself is rapturously depicted, with floating drone shots of the skyline over the opening credits.

Yet I couldn’t help feeling that Been So Long is a bit flawed by other, less confidently drawn subplot figures, chiefly Gil (George MacKay), whose presence is tonally uneven. He is a malnourished guy with bad skin who roams the streets wildly, aggressively talking to himself. He looks and behaves like a drug addict, although isn’t shown taking drugs. It isn’t immediately clear if he is supposed to be wacky comic relief. At one point, Simone’s fierce sister, Yvonne (Ronke Adekoluejo), grabs him outside a club and contemptuously throws him on the ground for yelling at her. In real life, in Camden, you don’t try that with intense-looking strange guys, no matter how absurdly scrawny they are and how insulting their behaviour is.

He might appear to be comic, but when Gil conceives a fanatically jealous obsession with Raymond, delusively blaming him for his failure to impress a girl and following him around with a two-feet-long stolen kebab blade, the queasy threat of violence jars with the comedy and escapist lightness – as does the suggestion of mental illness. In keeping with its general idealism, Been So Long proclaims that all this can be solved with human sympathy and the power of love.

Watch the trailer on YouTube

There is a great chemistry between Coel and Kene. I loved the split-screen postcoital scene when Simone and Raymond are back at their respective homes the morning after, each having showers and singing about how amazing they feel. It is sweetly hilarious when Raymond brings Simone to his place, two minutes past his electronic-tag curfew, and the probation officer on the end of the phone starts singing about love.

Adekoluejo brims with energy as Yvonne, who is dead set on waking up her sobersided sister to the innocent joys of single life. “You ain’t had a date since the end of Myspace!” she sings to her. Joe Dempsie does his best with the small role of Kestrel, Simone’s loathed ex-partner who is trying his best to be a good person. Luke Norris is Barney, who runs a rather unpopular pub and appears to have an unrequited crush on Simone, who affectionately tells him she misses their “deep chats” – you can tell how wounded he is to be in the friend zone.

Been So Long has a sweet-natured openness. It balances the tough realities of life in the city with the buoyant possibilities of romance isn’t easy, and succeeds a lot of the time. Michaela Coel is tremendous in the leading role.

• At various venues, London film festival, until 15 October. Read all of our London film festival coverage


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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