• Jasmine Holly Bullock

Small Island: 2-Part Film Review

Small Island is a two part TV film, directed by John Alexander and produced by the BBC in 2009. This production was adapted from the 2004 book of the same name, written by Andrea Levy. The story follows the lives of 4 main characters and explores their individual experiences as well as how their lives remarkably intertwine. Racism, fate and acceptance are the prevalent themes of Small Island. The story focuses on Jamaicans coming to Britain during WWII and settling just after the end of the war. We see the hardships and rejection that these people face as their dreams of coming from one small island to a supposedly better small island isn’t all it was made out to be. 11 years later after the film, and 16 years after the book was written, and this story is still as relevant and insightful as ever.


Small Island had an astounding cast; the main players were Naomie Harris (as Hortense Roberts), David Oyelowo (as Gilbert Joseph), Ruth Wilson (as Queenie Bligh), Benedict Cumberbatch (as Bernard Bligh) and Ashley Walters (as Michael Roberts). Every one of those actors did justice to their respective roles. It’s hard for me to pick who my favourite actors were in this film because of the high standard of performance that there was. However, if I had to pick, I would say that Benedict Cumberbatch and David Oyelowo outshined the others BUT only by a fraction. I have never seen Cumberbatch in a role where he is pathetic as well as detestable. The character of Bernard is just so unlikeable, and Cumberbatch did a fantastic job of making himself so.

Oyelowo (as Gilbert) & Harris (as Hortense)

Oyelowo’s character was the exact opposite of Bernard, and consequently, very likeable. Oyelowo was successful at showing a wide range of emotions and a fully rounded character, his portrayal of Gilbert was funny and charming yet, at times, hopeless and lost. Also, the chemistry on screen between Oyelowo and Harris was divine; it was sweet to see how the relationship between their characters developed. It’s no surprise that at the Royal Television Society Programme Awards David Oyelowo and Naomie Harris won the Best Actor and Best Actress award, respectively.


Additionally, the soundtrack for Small Island was great, especially the main theme song. It comes as no surprise to me that the production was awarded the BAFTA Craft Award for Best Original Television Music; this award was received by composer Martin Phipps. Phipps has also composed music for shows like Black Mirror and The Crown, plus many more well known shows with great soundtracks. I generally appreciate the use of violins because I think they’re wonderful instruments... maybe that’s why I loved this score; the instrumentals were so light and delicate.

Walters (as Michael) & Wilson (as Queenie)

The dialogue for this production was undoubtedly influenced by the book itself, but was adapted and refined for TV by screenplay writers Paula Milne and Sarah Williams. Milne and Williams did well with the script and the language used in it. The colloquial terms and ways of speech were seemingly accurate; I learned that ‘perishing’ is slang for ‘cold’. There are also some terms used in Small Island that, whilst accurate, were not at pleasant to hear. However, when you have films that deal with important issues, it is of utmost importance that the dialogue is able to bring a sense of truth to those issues and to show how they massively impact people. We see how racism and isolation affect the black characters through their dialogue... but also through their silence in some moments.


The dialogue and language used is sometimes hard to listen to, but then again, Small Island is certainly very uncomfortable in some areas to watch because it deals with racism and the mistreatment of people due to purely aesthetic reasons and the general bigotry of others. It is a reminder, however, that the UK is not as innocent as people assume when it comes to the history of systematic racism that undermines the advancement of people of colour. With the international conversations being sparked about equality and the Black Lives Matter Movement, films like Small Island, which is set in 1948, point to the fact that less than 80 years ago the oppression of members of the black community was an acceptable and promoted idea. This is fairly recent history, so to expect its negative, long-lasting and generational effects to have dissipated by now is unrealistic. This is something to think about.


I cannot stress how good the BBC’s production of Small Island is. The fact that this TV film earned the Best TV Movie/Mini-series award at the Emmys says it all. It was a well-deserved win. I haven’t read the book yet, but this film series has made me determined to do so. After all, if it were not for the amazing book, there would be no amazing film. The characters and the story of Small Island are so well thought out and impactful, it is a true lesson in understanding how our biases affect us and those around us.


RATING: ★★★★★

AGE RATING: PG-13



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