There are two types of tower block in the east end of London, architecturally symbolising a polarisation that Mark Gillis proves to be all too aware of in Sink, his feature debut. On one side of the Thames are those sleek, glass bastions of capitalism that make up Canary Wharf; on the other, the concrete block epitomes of sixties social welfare. Naturally – in the tradition of Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz and Ken Loach – the hero of this socially aware, albeit morally ambitious, feature belongs to the latter.
At the film’s heart beats a wonderful performance by sportsman turned actor Martin Herdman, playing redundant workman Micky Mason, whose sad eyes belie the jovial smile of his weary face. Micky has good reason to be down and serves here as a deeply sympathetic emblem of the plights faced by many across Britain in the wake of the financial crash of ten years ago. Having lost his job as a skilled foreman, Micky is reduced to seizing zero hours menial employment and faces a daily struggle to make ends meet. To make matters worse, Micky’s dementia suffering father (Ian Hogg) is ejected from his care home at the start of the film, when it is bought out and their fees are raised beyond his means, and his son (Martin’s real son Joshua, of Harry Potter fame) battles drug addiction on streets that are all to ready to supply.
Once titled Wasted, Sink has been a five year passion project for Gillis and, in its realisation, demonstrates the director’s heightened social awareness. Reminiscent of I, Daniel Blake in theme and tone, Sink lacks that film’s refinement – not to mention budget – but benefits from a script that is more cautiously outraged on behalf of its characters and lighter of heart. There’s nuance in Gillis’ depictions of well-meaning, less officious, Job Centre employees and a vital acceptance that Micky has flaws – namely, his lack of anger management skills – to go with his likably honest and ethical outlook.
At his lowest ebb, Micky finds his morality challenged and turns to an old friend in desperation. Gillis himself features in the film as Paul, a successful entrepreneur who engages in self-righteous, thoroughly illegal, trade operations: ‘Good jobs. Proper wages. Tax paid on the dot. I’m a dying breed.’ Filmed with a wilful neutrality, the dilemmas and actions of Micky are played as a matter for debate rather than grungy thrills and there’s satisfaction in the way the film retains an air of naturalism even as it traverses more contrived avenues.
Such is the film’s primary appeal. Having lived in the London borough in which the film is set, Gillis is able to channel lived experience into his characters, each of whom speak a dialectic language that rings true. A sense of community flows through the film – epitomised by its traditional folk soundtrack – with even ‘hoodies’ bearing a generosity of un-stereotypical spirit. Likewise, warm, situationally realistic humour brings balance to the darker hues of Gillis’ script and instances of heartbreaking poignancy. In one inspired scene, a character begins to make dinner by pulling out a copy of Jamie Oliver’s 30 Minute Meals and proceeds to use the book as a tool for forcing down their stiff chip slicer.
There are broader strokes here that work less well – the flashbacks jar and a gun sequence never really convinces – but it is the film’s humanity that sings. Indeed, this is a strong and pleasingly thought provoking entry to the powerful lineage of kitchen sink cinema. As far as insight goes, Gillis has crafted a tour de force of emotional integrity.