Life, as the introductory voiceover in “A Hundred Streets” informs us, ultimately amounts to little more than “long periods of waiting broken up by brief moments of change.” In the spirit of that observation, director Jim O’Hanlon’s earnestly conceived but often banal British ensemble drama counts on a handful of contrived narrative jolts to activate its ambling gallery of slender, slightly entangled character sketches. Seemingly modelled as London’s more polite answer to Paul Haggis’s “Crash,” complete with one fateful road collision but minus the burning sociopolitical rhetoric, this brightly shot diversion would just about pass muster as a midweek television serial. As a feature film, however, “A Hundred Streets” seems oddly unequal to the status of its charismatic name cast, headlined by Idris Elba and Gemma Arterton.
Still, it’s the stars’ presence — particularly that of a cruising Elba, who also offers his services as producer and music supervisor, but keeps his rapping skills under a bushel this time — that offer this VOD-friendly fodder what commercial potential it has, enabling an otherwise improbable U.S. distribution deal with Samuel Goldwyn Pictures. (The pic unspooled at the Los Angeles Film Festival this summer, but hasn’t cracked the fest circuit across the pond.) To its credit, “A Hundred Streets” (billed as “100 Streets” in marketing materials, but not in the onscreen credits) doesn’t cynically exploit its crossover potential: The relative authenticity of the film’s London milieu, down to the distinctive urban slang wielded by its younger characters, is its most appealing virtue. The title, incidentally, derives from “The Oldest Thing in London,” a romantic ode to the Big Smoke by early 20th-century poet Cicely Fox Smith.
The rougher spoken-word stylings of teenage miscreant Kingsley (the promising Franz Drameh) provide irregular narration in first-time feature writer Leon F. Butler’s screenplay, which toggles a trio of stories from diverse points on the capital’s broad spectrum of class and privilege. Raised by a weary single mother (Jo Martin) on an impoverished council estate in southwest London, Kingsley has no productive outlet for his impulses as a writer and performer, sliding instead into the drug-dealing and gang violence that consumes men in his demographic; only a chance encounter with benevolent theater veteran Terrence (Ken Stott) points him toward a spotlit future. It’s a hackneyed arc, but Drameh — previously seen in secondary roles in “Attack the Block” and “Edge of Tomorrow” — has enough bristling raw talent of his own to sell the diamond-in-the-rough sentiment.
Across the river, in moneyed Chelsea, dashing former England rugby captain Max (Elba) and his reluctantly retired actress wife Emily (Arterton, rather affecting) are in the midst of a fractious trial separation following the former’s uncovered infidelity. As she faces a personal crossroads, seeking to revive her stage career while half-committing to a romantic dalliance with old flame Jake (“Downton Abbey’s” Tom Cullen, sorely underused), Max slides precipitously into alcoholism and cocaine addiction — climaxing, or rather bottoming out, in the least plausible of the film’s dramatic standoffs. (Perhaps due to budgetary constraints, the film’s celebrity-focused strand most tests credibility: for a national sporting hero embroiled in personal scandal, Max seems to have a remarkable knack for repelling tabloid paparazzi.) Between these two social extremes, drawn more lightly than either, lies the story of average-joe cabbie George (Charlie Creed-Miles), whose placid dreams of starting a family with his lovingly patient wife Kathy (Kierston Wareing) are knocked off course when he’s involved in a tragic traffic accident.
In addition to an obvious assortment of multi-stranded film precedents, Butler appears to take inspiration from such multi-faceted, class-oriented domestic television dramas as Jimmy McGovern’s “The Street,” though his storytelling ultimately reveals soapier roots. While the film initially exercises commendable restraint in braiding its separate narratives, its second half grows increasingly reliant on pat connections and coincidences: By the time a critical pregnancy test is discovered in the garbage, “A Hundred Streets” isn’t, well, a hundred miles removed from the episodes of “Coronation Street” and “Casualty” on which O’Hanlon cut his efficient directorial teeth. If the proceedings maintain a certain cinematic sheen in spite of it all, we can thank accomplished cinematographer Philipp Blaubach (“The Disappearance of Alice Creed”), whose airy, spring-toned compositions effectively subvert our drizzly expectations of most London-set kitchen-sink outings.