While Netflix boasts some seriously impressive original series’ and big blockbuster features, it’s often the independent flicks one finds while trawling through the forgotten categories that become such standout hidden gems. One such find is the 2014 BBC television film Common from David Blair.
Directed by Blair and written by Jimmy McGovern (The Street, Banished), Common tells the story of seventeen year old Johnjo O’Shea as he’s dragged into a legal battle of justice when accused on murder under England’s joint enterprise doctrine. When Johnjo (Nico Mirallegro) gets a call from his older cousin Tony (Philip Hill-Pearson) asking for a lift to their local pizza place, he jumps at the chance to spend some time with the impressive lad and their friends,even if he’s just their for the ride and borrow his brother’s car to pick up the boys.
Waiting in the car outside, it’s only when the three boys come running back to the car holding a bloodied knife that Johnjo feels the cold grip in panic. He’s just become an unknown getaway driver to an unplanned murder, as one of his cousin’s friends, Kieran (Andrew Ellis) violently stabbed innocent bystander, Tommy Ward, in the pizza diner.
Johnjo heads home after the murder completely bewildered at what he’s been dragged into and begs Kieran to come forward to the police. Kieran makes it frighteningly clear that they should all keep their mouths shut and if Johnjo grasses him up there will be violent consequences for him and his family. It takes no time at all for the police to show up at Johnjo’s door and with his brother taken away due to his car being seen on CCTV, Johnjo decides to come forward and make a full, honest statement of what happened.
Despite Johnjo’s lack of involvement of the murder, he faces trial as an accessory under the joint enterprise doctrine, a power that ensures all connected to the murder face the same punishment as those who physically carried out the attack. The rest of the narrative follows Johnjo’s conflicted mind in pleading guilty, his mother’s complete turmoil and the devastating effect the attack has had on Tommy’s mother.
The BBC drama is truly compelling as it explores the controversial common purpose doctrine in a negative light. The very core of the film’s aesthetic mirrors the bleak, gritty working-class England it’s set in and certainly paints the picture of unfortunate, pre-judged teens trapped in a world of social prejudice and doubtless guilt to whatever they’re accused of.
McGovern’s script was inspired by the real life case of sixteen year old Jordan Cunliffe who was sentenced to twelve years under the common purpose law for the murder of Garry Newlove despite not actively taking part in the murder. Knowing that others have gone through the same issues, from both sides of the case, makes watching Common a very emotional and sobering experience and it’s handled by Blair with gentle and sympathetic expertise.
What’s also so brilliant about Common is that it opens up for a completely different view to a piece of legislation that has otherwise been praised by lawyers for its help in ensuring criminals cannot escape judgement by dismissing any physical involvement in violent murderous crimes. Often you feel yourself pulled from one side of the courtroom to the other. Our sympathies are clearly felt for Johnjo as we know he is absolutely innocent but seeing the relived faces of Tommy’s family when he’s convicted comes with a bizarre sense of relief for them also.
There are some completely brilliant performances from such a strong cast, particularly from Nico Mirallegro, Susan Lynch and Jodhi May. Mirallegro plays Johnjo with a heartbreaking sense of vulnerability that oozes from his entire performance; his subtle body language screaming out extreme confusion and terror. With previous performances in the likes of Hollyoaks and the more recent E4 drama My Mad Fat Diary, Mirallegro looks to be a real one to watch for your British talent.
Jodhi May plays Johnjo’s desperate mother and gives a devastating performance as we witness the hope for her son’s proven innocence dwindle to a heartbreaking nothing. There was never a doubt for her in her Johnjo’s innocence, just a mother’s absolute raw worry for his two impossible options. Six years for pleading guilty or risking life imprisonment if he denies the charge. She absolutely cannot handle the idea that Johnjo could deal with any time in prison and is therefore desperately clinging to the idea that he will be found innocent.
Susan Lynch gives a crushing insight into a mother’s grief as we witness the fallout of Tommy’s murder first hand. A particularly harrowing scene involved Lynch identifying her son’s lifeless body as she lets out an inhuman scream. An all consuming, desolating roar of emotional turmoil that drags you down into the dark fog of her grief as the reality of the situation comes crashing down on her. Lynch does a wonderful job on ensuring we don’t forget the first victim of this heinous crime.
Common does not give us the gift of a Hollywood happy ending but does give us a compelling and interesting insight into the effects of such an interesting aspect of the common purpose doctrine that stays with you long after the film ends. Blair ensures we’re left with some sense of hope as both Johnjo and Tommy’s mother find some kind of peace; something immensely important with these kinds of narratives. With brilliant performances, a gritty sense of social realism and a thought provoking narrative; Common is a Netflix find treat.