My Name is Leon review: An incredibly moving, hard-to-watch story about a boy taken into care

·3-min read

Watching My Name is Leon, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the key element in bringing up a child in 1980s Britain was the Curly Wurly. There is some truth in that, actually, then and now. A plentiful supply of Cadbury’s confectionery is certainly how lovely professional foster mum Maureen (Monica Dolan) – getting on in years but with a surplus of maternal love – manages to get the best out of the emotionally battered nine-year-old Leon (Cole Martin). Leon is left with Maureen after social services rule that his single mum (Carol, played by Poppy Lee Friar) cannot look after him and his baby half-brother Jake. Leon’s mum disappears to deal with her descent into drink and depression, and, soon after the pair arrive Chez Maureen, a well-meaning but useless social worker (Shobna Gulati) tells Leon that his little baby brother, whom he dotes on and plays daddy to, is to be adopted and he won’t see him again “for a long time”. It’s hard to watch.

Poor little Leon is smart enough to wonder why they’re not being adopted together, and has the intuition to then realise that the real reason why the family is being torn apart, once again, is because he is mixed race and his half-brother is white, and a baby, and thus “easier to find a forever home for”. Leon is indeed made to feel “other” on an almost constant basis from what we nowadays call “micro-aggressions”. Even when Maureen’s sister Sylvia (Olivia Williams) turns up to make a fuss of the new boy, she declares: “Who’s this little monkey?”

In the Birmingham of the era, not so long after the Windrush generation arrived, there is plenty more casual racism and, as Leon grows up and befriends people in the Black community, he sees and experiences ever nastier discrimination and cruel treatment – the suspicious death of a Black activist in police custody, a race riot and Leon himself getting clouted by a copper.

There’s a constant tension between Leon’s innocent play with his Action Man, always out on exciting missions, and his brutal introductions to the adult world. However, despite running away from “home” (he never really has one for long) and some tantrums, he always returns to the loving arms of Maureen and the Afro-Caribbean community that he hangs out with in the local allotments. In among the sheds we find Lenny Henry (one of the executive producers) who puts in a cameo as a domino-playing elder, and Christopher Eccleston, rather randomly, is thrown a few lines as a grumpy Northern Irish allotment caretaker. They hardly meet Leon: blink and you’d miss them.

My Name is Leon, a dramatisation of the novel by Kit De Waal, is just incredibly moving. Yet it also seems curiously, frustratingly unfinished. Leon spends so much of this time telling himself, his toys, his foster mum, his friends and strangers in the street that he’s going to find his long-gone brother. But we don’t get to see Leon grow up and watch this happen, so we end up with a sense of loss as well.

I’d love a sequel. And that’s all down to some fine, sensitive screenwriting by Shola Amoo, neat direction by Lynette Linton (nicely capturing the way kids eavesdrop on snatches of adults’ conversations), another brilliant performance by the ubiquitous Dolan and, above all, the obviously gifted newcomer Cole Martin, who lends great subtlety to his role. Give the lad a Curly Wurly.

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