Penny Woolcock’s Mischief Night is a film that brings to the fore pretty much every concern imaginable affecting the contemporary world. Whether it be underground gun culture, drug addiction, racial tensions or a portrait of religious extremism, Mischief Night leaves no stone unturned in the issues it explores. Such issues, one would imagine, could only exist in as bleak a context at they themselves embody, but Woolcock has chosen to deliver these modern day dilemmas with tongue firmly in cheek.
This no holds barred comedy, set in a colourful fictional Yorkshire town, focuses on the lives of two very different families in the run up to Mischief Night, an evening of trickery and mayhem dating back to the Druids and a night that is still celebrated in England’s North East.
The Khans and the Crabtrees are two families just getting on with it. Separated by a large park with, as the film’s constant narrator Tina imparts, “[us] on one side – and the Pakis on the other”, this is a bold but accurate representation of the segregation of cultures in the North East of England following the Leeds and Bradford riots in 2001. It is this setting where these two cultures make every effort to avoid collision, where a lack of integration has become the norm, and where the foundation is laid for the entire film.
The tone and style of the film is energetic, full of life and colour, with the grim up North being delivered with splashes of greens, pinks, yellows and bright blues from hanging sarongs canopying the glittering Bollywood postered streets on the Asian side of the park.
Tina Crabtree (Shameless star Kelli Hollis), from the park’s other side, makes every effort to keep her troublesome brood – Kimberley, Macauley and Tyler – away from the fluttering sarongs, and spends the majority of her time trying to beat up her drip of a boyfriend Kev and to uphold, in her own peculiar way, her family values. This encompasses everything from failed Sunday roasts to concealing from her youngest, Kimberley, the true identity of her father, in a twisted effort to protect her.
But when Kimberley, outraged at her mother’s determination to hide her real identity, storms off to the other side of the park she collides with Asif, the youngest Khan, who takes the opportunity to throw insults at her audacious trespassing. A fight ensues, and Tina intervenes with rage. As Tina pulls her child from the scrum Immie, Asif’s older brother and an old schoolmate of Tina’s played by Ramon Tikaram (from hit TV series This Life), breaks up the fight. A lingering glance and Tina reminisces: “me and him used to go to school together, it was different back then.”
Throw into the mix Immie’s sister’s refusal to adhere to an arranged marriage, drug baron Quassim’s (Christopher Simpsons) violent control of child drug dealers, teenager Tyler Crabtree’s wish to prove himself to the don of the estate, his granddad, Kimberley’s quest for an identity, a problem at the mosque where a group of extremists are plotting to take over, three kids getting into strife with a suspected paedophile, some lesbians and a psychotic gangster, a cross cultural love affair, racism, heroine addiction and gun crime, and you have the confusion and chaos that is Mischief Night.
The balance Woolcock clearly craves with some of the most serious issues of today and a light hearted, playful silliness sadly never really finds its feet. There is a moment when Asif, speaking on his mobile phone, reveals for a moment the picture on his screen saver. None other than the worlds most wanted man, Osama Bin Laden is winking from the screen. It’s a strange moment and I really did want to laugh, the only thing was, I didn’t.