Close-up yields suburban secrets
Broken A Place for Me Spring Breakers
(MA15+) ★★★★ Limited release from Thursday
(MA15+) ★★★✩✩ Limited release from Thursday
WATCHING Broken, a superbly acted and emotionally wrenching British film from acclaimed theatre director Rufus Norris, I was reminded of the so-called kitchen sink movement in British cinema. This began in the late 1950s with films such as Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey and A Kind of Loving, which were in their own ways as strikingly fresh as the concurrent French new wave films. Both movements broke with the more comfortable conventions of the cinema that preceded them and introduced new directors, among them former critics, documentary makers and stage directors.
The British films were invariably set in the Midlands and north of England, among workingclass people, and they introduced a generation of new actors, among them Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Rita Tushingham.
We don’t see enough new British films in cinemas these days to be able to determine if Broken is part of a similar movement, but its impact is great. And it introduces an extraordinary young actress in 11-year-old Eloise Laurence, who plays the character around whom the drama unfolds.
Everyone calls her Skunk, a most unflattering name she seems to accept without complaint. She lives with her father, Archie (Tim Roth), a lawyer, and her brother in a house at the end of a cul-de-sac in north London. The narrative revolves almost entirely around just three houses in this very ordinary street, a reasonably affluent, middle-class neighbourhood by the look of it, but with simmering tensions and violence lurking just beneath the surface.
Skunk’s mother left the family some time earlier; her busy father has never really recovered from being abandoned, though he’s able to cope with the children and household chores thanks to the presence of a live-in au pair, Kasia (Zana Marjanovic).
In the confronting opening sequence, Skunk is passing the time of day with one of her neighbours, Rick (Robert Emms), who is washing his parents’ car. Rick has mental problems — he needs special care but seems to be a goodnatured kid. Suddenly another neighbour, Oswald (Rory Kinnear), emerges from his house in blind fury and attacks Rick, beating him savagely. The reason for this thuggish behaviour soon becomes clear: Oswald is a widower trying, rather unsuccessfully, to rear three wayward, selfish and manipulative daughters. One of them has falsely accused Rick of raping her, hence her father’s wrathful and ill-considered violence.
But this is just the start of a series of events that will involve these three dysfunctional families as well as a peripheral character, Mike (Cillian Murphy), a teacher at the school the girls attend and lover of Kasia. If the adults are troubled, the children are even more affected. Skunk is the film’s moral centre, but she is unwell, suffering from diabetes and having to check her sugar levels constantly.
Based on a novel by Daniel Clay, Broken offers an unsettling depiction of a society in distress. This is particularly true of the Oswald family, led by a damaged father who is incapable of rearing three unruly and amoral daughters as acceptable members of society. Alongside them, innocents such as Skunk, Rick and, to an extent, Mike, stand no chance; they become collateral damage when these foul-mouthed bullies shamelessly spread lies and destruction at every turn. Yet the film succeeds in creating sympathy for these girls, despite their antisocial behaviour; their father is a violent bully too.
For his first feature film, Norris has homed in on a world in which, just beneath the surface of comfortable suburbia, terrible things are going on. His tendency to present the results of an act before showing the act itself is a little jarring at first, but once you get used to it the emotional power of the film fully takes hold. Towards the end, potentially melodramatic material is just about held in check, thanks to the intelligent direction and the superb performances.
Everyone is good in this film, but Laurence is a revelation, a child actress of exceptional strength and range. COMPARED with Broken, the problems faced by the characters in independent American film A Place for Me (aka Writers, aka Stuck in Love — it’s a film that seems to have had difficulty deciding on a title) seem minor indeed. As the original title suggests, it’s about members of a family of literary types, high achievers but facing familiar problems. Samantha, played by Lily Collins, is a student in her early 20s who has just succeeded in getting her first novel published without any help from her father, an established author. Samantha is as attractive as she is talented, but she has difficulty with relationships, keeping the likeliest prospect for romance, a nice fellow called Lou (Logan Lerman), who cares for his terminally ill mother, at bay for most of the movie. Her kid brother Rusty (Nat Wolff) is a huge fan of Stephen King and wants to write like him; he fancies Kate (Liana Liberato), a girl at school, but she has a lot of problems.
The parents of these talented but emotionally retarded kids are separated. Bill (Greg Kinnear) hasn’t been able to get a book published since his wife, Erica (Jennifer Connelly), left him for another man; he’s so sure she’ll come back one day that he always lays a place for her at Thanksgiving dinner, which infuriates Samantha, who hates her mother.
Josh Boone wrote and directed this perfectly amiable but not very substantial film. He elicits strong performances from his cast (Kinnear and Connelly are especially adept at suggesting depths of character not to be found in the screenplay), but towards the end the narrative becomes less convincing. Perhaps Boone is trying a little too hard to make his characters charming and, as a result, they emerge as rather one-dimensional. Despite that, the film is filled with acute observation and is very well made on an obviously limited budget. THE talents possessed by the young women in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers certainly