Broken follows the long tradition of compelling independent drama from British cinema
There are times when cinema can be hard to watch. British independent films are among the best when it comes to producing content that is at the hard edge of viewing, it seems something about our culture produces writers/directors and storytellers abound to shine a light on the darker side of British life. Films such as Naked, Kes, Fishtank, Ill Manors and Tyrannosaur, to name but a few, are grubby but compelling viewing. Looking at the seedier side of life through the eyes of a protagonist set within that life leads to much confrontation and it can be very harrowing if the sense of realism is palpable. Tonight’s feature is very much in the same mould and may, due to its setting being outside of the council terror towers that this type of film thrive on, be even more frightening because of it. From acclaimed theatre director Rufus Norris comes an adaptation of Daniel Clay’s award winning novel, and the subject of tonight’s feature – Broken.
The film opens on establishing an unbreakable father/daughter bond upon birth, when we are introduced to a premature infant being nursed in an incubator while the doting father strokes her head and cradles her hands. This opening shot is vital in setting the scene for the bond that will be tested later. The girl, established as she ages, has Type I diabetes, and requires constant supervision, something that she has taken responsibility for (see her going through the ritual of testing her blood, noting the results in her journal) but something that she regards as part of her life and not something that rules it. She is outgoing and friendly, see her running in the park, wild and carefree; she is young, still a girl, but, at eleven and on the brink of starting secondary school, she is also nearing womanhood and events around her will soon spiral out of control and force a view of life on her young shoulders that she is not quite ready to inherit. We see her neighbourhood; it’s a nice area of suburbia, surrounded by Green Belt there are areas of industrialisation and her street is a quiet cul-de-sac of detached houses. Skunk, as she is known to all, runs into her street, stops and opens a conversation with a neighbour, a young lad, Rick, washing his car. From his strangled speech we immediately know that he has a slight mental issue, a harmless enough boy that is trying to find his place in the world. Their talk is good natured and friendly, there is a nice chemistry between them, another important scene needed to establish this bond as the violence that is about to erupt will test it beyond breaking. As Skunk turns away she greets another neighbour – and this is in the trailer so is not a spoiler – who then proceeds to attack Rick and beat him to within an inch of his life directly in front of her; it is shocking and harrowing and shown with such a matter-of-fact style of filming that you feel dirty for watching and not intervening. And just like poor Skunk we are asking, what just happened, why did that just happen, what is going on? (The trailer points to a cause for this effect, something that should have remained far more enigmatic as the actual cause is far more casual and thus awful).
We now have the players in this sick triangle for their fates are now intertwined and the outcome, unknown at this point, is heading deep into the shadows beyond the reach of all light. Skunk is played with sheer delight by newcomer Eloise Laurence – this being her debut feature, she is fresh, young and innocent, exactly what the character demands; see her frivolous behaviour in the comfort of her own home, laying over her father, wrestling with her older brother and dealing with the stresses of starting ‘big’ school. Her journey through the film is effortless, we watch her wide-eyed innocence turn to something different as she finds a crush, has her first kiss, survives bullying, reaches out a hand of hope to Rick and battles full on with her dad regarding a ‘lost’ phone. This is a girl on the edge of becoming a teenager, her wilful streak just setting in and Laurence nails it every time. She has a perfect chemistry with all her family and never once does she react to a situation in a way that is not perfectly natural.
Whilst the story is undoubtedly centred on Skunk, it is the events that surround her that drive it forward. In this sense you could argue that the plot of the film is more ‘about’ Rick. Risk is played by Robert Emms, himself a relative newcomer, but he’s added a few big titles to his name (War Horse, Anonymous) and manages to, again , acquit himself very well. Rick has (unspecified) mental issues, he stutters around words, often repeating himself and has a very childlike attitude towards tasks – after the beating he becomes very, very withdrawn, unable to cope with what life is throwing at him, he believes the accusations levelled at him by the brutish Oswald family and it is his reaction and coping mechanisms that ultimately end in tragedy. His parents struggle to deal with him, and his mother, in her unconditional love, doesn’t in fact help Rick, but rather pushes him, while the child in him knows only one way to react. Emms plays the character with ease, he has the startled, questioning look off to a tee, and his short moments of dialogue pierce deep into a troubled mind. He and Laurence play extremely well off each other, their shared speech while Rick is in hospital forming a bond that will eventually be the cause of so much consternation later.
Then we have the violent neighbour Bob Oswald. He is brought to life by Rory Kinnear (Skyfall) playing a mile away from type. In his own way Bob is as much a loving father as Skunk’s dad is, loyal to his daughters, bringing them up as best as he knows how on his own – it’s just that he is a violent and aggressive thug who can be manipulated by his girls. He’s attack on Rick is sparked by his middle daughter (he has three aged approximately eleven, fourteen and eighteen) and subsequent violence perpetrated by him in a conspiracy by the younger two. His behaviour outside of the house is mimicked by his younger girls (especially the youngest who becomes a scourge to the newest intake at the local school). Although not explicit in the film (one of the few detrimental points) it is established in the books that Bob is in social housing, an alcoholic and long term unemployed living on benefits – the chip firmly on his shoulder seeing all those outside as beneath him. This type of character is well known to many people, the local thug family who can ruin entire estates with unruly and provocative behaviour. And Kinnear is stunning in the role, I think, because we are not used to seeing him as such a character.
He is short tempered, brutish and loud. See how he talks with utter distain to Skunk’s father when he knocks on the door to try and protect Rick from the unwanted attentions of the unruly daughters. Of particular delight is that Bob is never painted purely black, see him taking on the domestic chores of the house, his own tragic event, or that he unwittingly comes to a rescue when all hope seems lost - perhaps not fully redeeming qualities but goes a long way to blur the lines between good and evil.
Surrounding these principles we have some heavy hitters in terms of acting talent. Tim Roth gives life to Archie, Skunk’s father. He is a lawyer, hardworking but dedicated to his family. His wife left him and the children when they were young and Archie has been bringing them up ever since, he and his au-pair, Kasia. His relationship with both his children is on great terms, but there is something special between him and Skunk. Roth is simply wonderful in this, almost, understated role. Archie is a good man, and Roth plays him with empathy and heart – his chemistry with Laurence is a joy; the many scenes they share are perfectly natural, each one playing to the other’s strengths, so much so that they could be father and daughter. This is never better shown than when Skunk has ‘lost’ her phone at school and she badgers her father for a new one (man do I know that badgering!), she is relentless and the way they bounce off each other is wonderful – it’s a little too close to home! There is no doubt that in this stage of her life one true stand up figure in Skunk’s life is Archie. However, another man that is in her life is that of Mike, Kasia’s on again, off again, boyfriend. Clearly there is a little crush going on for Skunk and this is tested when Mike becomes her teacher at school. Playing Mike is Cillian Murphy. Mike’s journey is one of ups and downs, mostly his own fault as his tempestuous relationship with Kasia boils over on more than one occasion – in a story that is following Skunk’s journey from youth to womanhood, it is delicious irony that Mike’s is somewhat in the reverse order. Murphy is typically excellent in the role, and when situations conspire against him (literally) he regresses wonderfully in stature and again delivers a wonderful piece of natural acting.
As to the story itself, in the best forms of cinema (or theatre) once you have characters established to get the most emotional impact you throw situations at them and see how they react. And our characters have a lot thrown towards them. Norris’ style of direction is to show a situation ‘in your face’, such as the violent attack on Rick and then show how that came about – so that our initial reaction mirrors those at the scene – we are as bewildered and confused as to what is going on as the characters are themselves. This is a brave piece of filmmaking from a debut director, but I tell you what, it works and it is extremely powerful. This opening scene is one of many that play out in such a way and at each juncture the story unfolds into incredible, but honest and believable, ideas. These are real character in real situations whose choices and directions are dictated by the very actions that they decide upon. Moments of incredulous behaviour, once explained, become clear as the film progresses making it a very compelling watch. If this were a book it would be termed a ‘page-turner’. And as the climax approaches there is no let-up in the pace. The anguish shown by those who are affected is as real to us, the audience, as it is to the characters – especially if you have children. I wasn’t a huge fan of the ‘shaky-cam’ used in places, despite the ‘documentary realism’ I really don’t think it needed such cheap tactics. And personally I would have loved the parting shots to have been far more enigmatic so that an open ended interpretation is left with the audience, the one given does fit in well and does form a nice piece of closure leaving that all important glimmer of hope, but somehow, I feel, it might have elevated it even further if left oblique.
And then there is the title. The book is quite clear on the meaning; the actions against Rick lead him to be ‘broken’. However, within the confines of the film there is far more meaning attached. The obvious is the meaning above, but then there is the ‘broken’ society upon which this story takes place. What about the ‘broken’ relationships that lead to the situations which occur? Ascribed meaning may be fanciful, but drawing parallels is very simple when the ideas are so clearly etched.
A powerful story told with excellent performances from an exciting director whose narrative drives a compelling watch – Broken comes highly recommended.
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