Embroiled in a life of petty crime on the streets of the East End during the 80s, screenwriter Martin Askew watched the lives of many close friends and associates fall apart around him. On the same path to destruction, the young Cockney found his way out through a combination of the arts and Islam, and he’s put both into his most recent work.
Snow in Paradise follows the exploits of an ambitious young criminal, Dave (Frederick Schmidt), as he seeks to impress his hoodlum uncle, played by Askew himself. When Dave’s actions lead to the devastating death of his best mate, Tariq (Aymen Hamdouchi), he finds care and support amongst the Muslim community at his local mosque, but not before a rough internal struggle takes him right down to rock bottom.
“It’s obviously a very redemptive-type story of someone who’s been brought up in the East End in a very dysfunctional and quite violent environment, and he manages to pull away from that lifestyle and surrender himself to peace,” Askew explains over the phone, in a slow East End drawl.
“I wanted to be involved in something that can turn people away from violence and that sort of life.”
The film’s fiery script was co-written and brought to life by debutant director Andrew Hulme, who’s known for his sharp editing work on Control, Red Riding 1974 and The Imposter. In no danger of glamourising the darker side of East London, it’s an in-your-face anti-gangster flick delivered with real artsy flair.
“I wanted to make a film that was both a thriller and a character piece,” Hulme says, “something that rode the line between commercial and art-house. One of the things that interested me about it was the fact that it is quite political – here is a guy who embraces a castigated religion.”
Part fictional, part autobiographical, part steeped in history and extremely current, there’s a good bit to chew on. Excluded from the rapidly changing – gentrifying – landscape in which he lives, Dave’s choice is to struggle and suffer, skint and crime-free, or to struggle and suffer as a criminal with enough cash in his pocket to take the edge off things. On top of all this, his part-time girlfriend’s a sex worker and he’s got a serious drug habit.
When, in desperate search of the missing Tariq, he stumbles into a mosque, something clicks and things gradually become a little less complicated – he falls into a kind of spiritual therapy.
“I certainly feel that Islam is a religion that is mis-portrayed by the media – that is misunderstood by the public because of that,” Hulme says. “Contrary to what we are told, the vast majority of Muslims are actually peace-loving. Like one of our characters says in the film, Islam means peace. It literally does. That’s not to deny that aspects of it are twisted to suit other people’s ends. But we know that story, that’s what we’re told all the time.”
Snow in Paradise successfully presents a new narrative. Steering the London gangster genre down an unfamiliar and refreshing road, the conversion storyline came directly from Askew’s own life.
“It’s just brushstrokes really of my experiences,” Askew says. “When I was growing up in the 70s and the 80s in East London, it was quite a criminal culture. And when you’re born into that sort of culture you just think it’s normal, and growing up I just thought this is how everyone lives.
“As I got older, when a friend of mine died and then I lost another four of my friends in a horrific car crash on the way to a friend’s funeral – who got murdered – I started questioning and I started searching for stuff in religions.”
He explains that despite exploring a wide range of religions and philosophies, he struggled to distance himself from his wayward lifestyle and continued to slip back into old habits. But when he was almost killed in a serious attack outside a nightclub, someone suggested that he read the Quran.
“It was just pragmatic and it helped me open up my eyes to another world I’d not experienced growing up in my community. My role models were all very colourful people, but the hard-living lifestyle was almost monolithic. My people were very socially oppressed to some extent and it’s a big mountain to climb for change,” he says.
“I was fortunate to have some sort of epiphany after about six months of clean time and it helped me in my art, it helped in my writing, it gave me structure.”
As well as its progressively original storyline, the piece is driven by a searing lead performance from Frederick Schmidt, a previously unknown actor who was discovered puffing a cigarette on a Hoxton street corner by a casting scout.
“He didn’t believe we were real,” says Hulme. “But he came in anyway and before he knew it we were offering him another audition. We put him through a few more tests, different auditions, different scenes. He was very raw and had never acted before, but we all saw the potential in him. So we decided to push on.”
It was a good decision. There are traces in Schmidt’s performance of the intensity of a young Tom Hardy. He has the capacity to carry a scene on his broad shoulders in much the same vein as Jack O’Connell in David Mackenzie’s ferocious prison drama Starred Up. Expect to see plenty more of him.
Also surprising is Askew’s excellent turn as the ruthless Uncle Jimmy. Dark, brooding and unsettlingly composed, he makes for a convincing villain. His, too, was an unexpected appointment.
“Because I’d acted before, Frederick and I were actually rehearsing intensely together – doing boxing training and acting training. And after weeks of this, I think they started to realise that they had someone who had potential,” he explains.
“I had to read for it and then I got recalled, and then again, and eventually I got the role, which was a bit of a shock because I really didn’t expect to be acting in this film. Because of where I grew up, I had a lot of backstory to draw on, you know. I tried not to play him like a screen gangster but more in the vein of a real gangster.”
With the film complete and set for release this month, Askew looks back on it as a cathartic experience. For a long time he’s been directly involved with the gangster genre, telling bits and pieces of his own story – he worked as associate producer on Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla – and now he’s ready to move on to fresh challenges.
As well as continuing his already established writing career, he’s turning his attention to charitable work, with plans to encourage troubled youngsters to get interested in the creative industries and to tell their own stories.
“Hopefully this film can help me do stuff with young guys who are involved in gangs or maybe living in a very macho world where being involved in the arts is something that’s contrary to their codes. I feel I’ve been there and I’ve seen it and I’ve got the battle scars and the trauma.
“I know how it can only take one push to help you go down another road, and that road could open doors to a very nice life.”
Snow in Paradise is out in cinemas and on demand from 13 February