There are some books you always remember for the way in which they opened your eyes to the world around you. They might have stripped away your innocence in the process, but they also reassured you that no matter how bad things could get, there were always some people doing their best to bring some balance to the world. The first book I remember providing me with that experience was Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Its harsh depiction of the American South in the 1930s of hatred and racism were mitigated by the simple beauty of the coming of age story it told. It’s one of those books you can still read today and find it as relevant as when it was first published in 1960.
If anyone had any doubts about the durability of Lee’s book and the theme’s it expresses, you need look no further than the film Broken which was recently released on DVD from Film Movement. Transferred from the American South to suburban England and from the 1930s setting of the original to the present day, Broken uses much the same form and structure of “Mockingbird”. Both feature a single father lawyer raising two children with the help of a live in nanny, and the eleven year old girl, Skunk, (Eloise Laurence) being the main character whose eyes we see the world through.
However, while wrongful accusations of sexual misconduct do play a significant role in propelling the movie’s story as it did in the book, the themes the movie explores are quite different from those the book deals with. The movie is also far more complex than the original story and nothing is as cut and dried as we’d like it to be or as first impressions might lead us to believe. As the movie progresses and our understanding of the characters involved increases we begin to understand, as Skunk does, there’s a lot more to people than what meets the eye. Actions, which taken out of context might seem senseless, while still not completely rational or normal, are at least explainable.
Skunk and her family, her father Archie (Tim Roth) brother Jed and au pair Kasia live on a cul de sac in North London with two other families, the Oswalds and the Buckleys. The Buckley’s son Rick (Robert Emms) suffers from some undisclosed mental illness. Unlike the other two families, who are obviously professional class, the Oswalds, father Bob (Rory Kinnear) and his three daughters are at first glance, for lack of a better word, white trash.
The movie opens with Skunk witnessing what seems like a completely unprovoked brutal attack on Rick by Bob. Skunk is standing in the middle of the road talking to Rick about washing his father’s car, when we see Bob come storming out of his house ripping his shirt and tie off. While completely focused on his target he greets Skunk as he passes her and then proceeds to beat Rick up. The next thing Skunk sees is Rick being taken away by the police. What Skunk doesn’t know is what led up to the events.
Bob’s fourteen year old middle daughter has been playing with a condom she’d stolen from her eldest sister’s purse. Knowing her father would be furious with her for having a condom, and not wanting to get her sister in trouble either, when he discovers the wrapper in her room she claims Rick used it when he had sex with her. The recently divorced and overly protective Bob goes ballistic, beats up Rick and then phones the police to charge him with having sex with a minor. When it’s discovered the girl is still a virgin the charges against Rick are dropped, but his imprisonment results in him regressing and ending up having to be institutionalized.
Against this background Skunk is also having to negotiate the tricky business of heading into her first year of the British equivalent of secondary school and her first boyfriend, Dillard. She also has to experience watching somebody whose she’s come to think of as a permanent fixture in her life walk out as her au pair breaks up with her long standing boy friend Mike (Cillian Murphy). However, the fear and unease she feels about her first day of school is somewhat mitigated when she discovers Mike is one of her teachers. Unfortunately she also runs afoul of an extortion ring run by Osbourne’s youngest and eldest daughters, the consequences of which send shockwaves through her entire community.
Like the book it is freely based on, Broken is a deceptively simple sounding story. On the surface it can be seen as a coming of age of story in which the scales of innocence begin to fall from the eyes of a young girl. Yet the title itself is also a key to understanding the actions of the film’s characters as we gradually realize how most of their behaviour is dictated by how they’ve been broken by life and circumstances. All the events of the film occur because of a character’s fear based on their life experiences which have left them damaged in some way. Those who initially come across as unsympathetic are revealed to be just as damaged as those who we feel sorry for in the beginning.
What makes this work so well is the universal excellence of the performances. Laurence, who had never acted prior to appearing in this role, is brilliant as Skunk. Her reactions to everything she sees are letter perfect and she comes across as one of the most real children I’ve ever seen on screen. Gawky, slightly geeky, but excited by life, she does a magnificent job of depicting the child turning into an adult. She manages to bring to life both the anger and fear she feels at the adult world she doesn’t understand and her excitement at entering this new world and all the while retaining the enthusiasm and naivety of the child she still is.
As her father Archie, Roth gives one of his most understated and powerful performances. Normally an actor we associate with a variety of twitches and near neurotic behaviour, here he delivers a beautiful and powerful portrait of a devoted father whose life revolves around his children. When his wife abandoned him with two children he obviously poured all his love into them, and shut himself off from feeling anything for anybody else. It comes as a complete surprise to him when he discovers he can actually have feelings for someone other than his kids. However, he doesn’t realize the impact beginning a relationship with his children’s au pair will have on Skunk. He doesn’t realize how much she fears it might end up result in another person leaving her.
One of the best performances in the film comes from Kinnear as Bob Osborne. Over the course of the film our image of him as a violent bully gradually evolves into a man desperate to protect his family from a world he’s seen fuck him over totally. Unlike his neighbour Archie who is able to demonstrate his love for his children through affection, Osborne, can only use his anger as a shield to protect them. When they are threatened or hurt he lashes out uncaring of the consequences following his instinct to keep them safe in only way he knows how. Kinnear does an amazing job of bringing all the different facets of this deeply troubled and broken man to life. We might not like his behaviour, but we can’t help but be sympathetic to the the depth of his passion and the very real love he feels for his children.
Broken is one of those wonderful movies that come along only once in a while. Not only is it beautifully written and acted it’s a multilayered story which works on a number of levels. We see the world from the perspective of children trying to make their way in a strange and sometimes confusing adult world and from that of the adults trying to understand what their children are going through. While there are moments of heartbreak and sporadic violence throughout the film, overall it is also a beautiful story of compassion and love. You might not see a better or more well-acted movie this year.