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Urban Jungle

An unrecognisable Penelope Cruz and a gun-toting, animalistic Brian Cox star in what's probably Ken Loach's most unabashedly romantic film (a Liverpool-set drama about a socialist builder and his Palestinian lover) - in cinemas on Friday, April 5th

In 1991, Nuneaton-born director Ken Loach released Riff-Raff, an urgently directed film that peered at building sites with as much raw honesty as he could muster, and now he returns to the mechanical landscape with Urban Jungle, a film where he reunites with Brian Cox of Hidden Agenda (1990). Cox plays Garry Henderson, a builder who spends his time counting down the hours until retirement, when he spots the loveliest woman he has ever seen in his life. It’s Maryam (Ebla Mari), a Palestinian woman who suggests that they should elope together, to East Jerusalem. This wild possibility tempts him except for the fact that his union buddies will shun him, not forgetting his wife Margaret (Ana de Armas, making her debut in a Ken Loach feature), who has tended to him for 10 years.

Arguably Loach’s most unabashedly romantic feature, the film is also noteworthy for a 10-minute gun fight, which was done in one impressive take. Cox’s Henderson spends much of the shootout covered in sweat, his eyes turning to the love for both the socialist party – which is led by Marina Vazquez, who is played rather wonderfully by Penelope Cruz – and the mistress he longs to run to. This particular silhouette has a political undertone, representing the struggle between the proletariats (the builders) and the capitalists (the architects) through the lexicon of violence.

But it’s not all bullet-fire and pecs: Urban Jungle features one of the most tender romantic scenes Loach has yet filmed, positioning the camera just above Garry and Maryam mid-coitus. They talk about philosophy, discussing the ramifications of the Marxists should they take a more liberal stance towards the conflict in the Middle East. Garry pictures himself in uniform, the sounds of rockets ricocheting across the living room, and he recognises his mediocrity both as a hero and, more fatally, as a lover. Cox hasn’t been this committed in years, and Cruz – the maniacal Vazquez – acquits herself nicely as a sparring partner. Mari has some of the film’s more memorable lines (“Socialism has been here as long as the Bible, but they never put a price tag on it” is a particular hoot). Armas does less well as the clawing Margaret, a Liverpudlian who spends half her time speaking in a Cuban accent (perhaps they’re being knowing, but “Go back to your puta inamorata” is a curious choice of zinger for Armas to utter).

Much of it is statically filmed, but the film opens a variety of rapid cuts that makes Liverpool come alive, as if to disprove the notion that Liverpool is a city based on industry alone. The film chugs along with a rock heavy energy, which might explain why Loach films a band performing a raucous version of Bella Ciao in a café populated by university students. At 140 minutes, the feature will test even the most hardened of Loach disciples, but there’s no denying the chemistry between Cox and Mari onscreen, particularly during the montage in Bani Suheila; a dream sequence that rivals Terry Gilliam at his most daring.
When Garry returns to the building site midway through the film, he does so with a purpose he had never thought possible. In a line thought to be Cox’s own invention, Garry tells Maryam “We really are screwed, so why don’t we just fuck?”

We’ve rarely seen Cox be so animal in cinema, but he has a magnetic twinkle in the eye, making the love scenes more believable. But Cruz is the real scene-stealer as the sloganeering, jeering leader of the workers, all sparkle eyes and gestures. Loach elicits a smooth performance from Cox, and a career-best from Cruz. This production was secretly filmed over the course of just two weeks in Liverpool.

Urban Jungle is in the best cinemas across the UK on Friday, April 5th.

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