As an American, it can be easy to be consumed by our nation’s news, entrenched in the never-ending news cycle that always seems to stew fear and cynicism. Therefore, it’s somewhat comforting to look outside our borders and see countries that are also dealing with many of the same issues. Sure, on the surface the United Kingdom seems as witty as Monty Python, as glamorous as Kate Middleton and as comforting as the Great British Bake Off. But one look at the BBC and you’ll see they’re dealing with Brexit, Boris Johnson and racist jeers at soccer/football games. Brits, they’re just like us!
All that to say, it’s films like Cat in the Wall that help us self-involved Americans to see this other side of the coin. Instead of Buckingham Palace, our setting is a southeast London council estate (public housing) and our protagonists are a small family of Bulgarian immigrants trying to eke out a living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Shot in a documentary style, Cat in the Wall attempts a frank and darkly humorous portrayal of the immigrant life but puts political commentary before an engrossing plot.
Irina, her brother, and her young son are Bulgarian immigrants barely making ends meet in a squalid East London flat, where someone keeps peeing in the elevator and the property owner threatens expensive and mandatory upgrades. The slice-of-life film highlights the day-to-day hardships and humor of an immigrant’s life, from paying the bills to dealing with disruptive neighbors. One of the main conflicts in the film occurs when Irina decides to take in an abandoned cat, a pet that her son bonds with just in time to figure out that the cat belongs to the neighbors a few floors down, who promptly confront her, demanding the return of their cat, who has gone to hide in the wall to escape all the yelling.
In tackling this story, Cat in the Wall touches on themes of immigration, wealth inequality, racism, and xenophobia. It’s a striking snapshot of the UK in the time of Brexit. However, these issues are pointed out often and with a heavy hand. It’s not just neighbors yelling, “go back to where you came from” but its police being called, racial profiling used as an excuse for arrest. It’s not just rising rents due to gentrification, it’s doing large and disruptive renovations without addressing the broken elevator.
It’s a collection of moments that makes for a powerful political message, but an underwhelming film. Watching Irina and her family slog through their day-to-day lives begins to feel like a slog to watch until a final third act tries to create some stakes too late in the game. Cat in the Wall brings up timely and important issues facing populations in the UK and around the world but fails to present it in a captivating way.
*This film was scheduled to screen at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, which was canceled amid COVID-19 concerns.