Featuring: Eloise Laurence, Tim Roth, Cillian Murphy, Rory Kinnear, Robert Emms, Zana Marajanovic, Bill Milner, Denis Lawson, George Sargeant
Director: Rufus Norris
Screenplay: Mark O’Rowe, adapted from a novel by Daniel Clay
Australian release date: Thursday, 16th May
One-word verdict: pffft
11-year-old diabetic Skunk lives in a comfortable three-house middle-class enclave with her lawyer father Archie (Tim Roth), older brother Jed (Bill Milner) and au pair Kasia (Zana Marjanovic). The neighbours are a mixed bag. There is the psychologically unstable, simple but sweet-natured Rick (Robert Emms) and his parents who look after him; the adjoining house is occupied by an intimidating trio of roughneck teenage girls and their angry, violent and uncouth father, Bob (Rory Kinnear).
These neighbours become unwitting agents of change for Skunk, in effect stripping her of her childhood and innocence, and introducing her to a new grim reality of danger, injustice and tragedy. First, she witnesses Rick being horrifically beaten by Bob, and subsequently arrested for a sexual crime he did not commit. Then her apprehension at starting high school is compounded when Bob’s girls extort, bully and beat her. Worse, she discovers her brother is involved with one of them – and her father with the au pair. But all this pales by comparison with the building crescendo of traumas and miseries that awaits…
So, we have a child lead character referred to only by her nickname, an older adolescent brother, a widowed and adored lawyer father who champions the underdog, a misunderstood outsider/pariah with a soft centre who is the victim of lies and vigilantism, a theme of innocence lost… The parallels with To Kill A Mockingbird are all-too-obvious – but superficial, unfortunately.
Mockingbird stands proud on its bedrock of compelling, well-structured narrative and vivid characterisation; Broken is fatally flawed in these fundamentals.
The opening sets the structural pattern for the rest of the movie. Skunk’s awkward conversation with shy, intellectually impaired neighbour Rick is shockingly truncated when he is brutally attacked by rampaging boor-next-door Bob. We learn via flashback that Rick has been damned by a lie told by one of Bob’s daughters, who is seeking to divert her father’s anger when he discovers evidence of her sexual misbehaviour.
Retrospective revelation of motivation behind violent action is a recurring device. Good old Bob the basher’s next victim is Skunk’s favourite teacher Mike (Cillian Murphy), who cops a brutal pasting in front of the class. Again, we learn of the reasons behind the assault in flashback. This is a structural strategy designed to put the viewer in Skunk’s position: she is confused and shocked, and so are we. An understanding of the reason for the violence comes later for us, as it does for her. Fair enough, to a point. However, this mode of narrative manipulation wears thin with repetition, as does its dramatic effect.
The messing with chronology is general – often, it seems, for no good reason – and so over-done that it draws attention to itself as a stylistic device, and distracts from the content of the film. This is but one of multiple aspects of self-conscious styling, an indie branding if you will. Pretentious and irritating, in my book. Do it differently, by all means, but think it out! Everything must be in the service of the piece. Difference for the sake of difference is artistic self-indulgence, filmmaker egotism. There’s too much of that here, and little of substance beneath the ‘clever’ packaging.
The performances are good, but the actors don’t have a lot to work with because their characters are under-developed.
Bob is a one-dimensional vicious thug bereft of appeal for the viewer. Even when tragedy strikes him (as it does all who live in this apparently cursed cul de sac), audience sympathy is a step too far. His form is just too bloody nasty, his manner too uncouth. Bob’s girls are chav stereotypes and inherently as unlikeable as their paternal role model from beginning to end. Skunk’s father Archie is a contemporary – and pale – facsimile of Mockingbird’s Atticus and isn’t given much opportunity to bust free of this mould.
Eloise Laurence does a good job as Skunk, but her character does not reach the ambitious heights the screenwriter and director apparently envisaged for her. When teacher Mike makes a final breakup call to his ex-girlfriend (now Skunk’s father’s lover), his main focus – bemusingly – is on Skunk’s extraordinary qualities. She’s a great kid, he enthuses, and “one day she’s going to amaze us all.” There is nothing at all throughout the film to support this prediction. Show, not tell, chaps.
That said, Skunk is the only character who develops in any significant way, so thank the muses for her. She’s endearing in her acceptance of Rick, and her affectionate relationship with her father is convincingly negotiated, if a little saccharine. A puppy love side-story is trite but cute coming-of-age stuff that functions to contrast her character’s innocence with the ugly world into which she is thrust by a series of awful happenings. And here I come to my main gripe about the movie.
In striving for edge and grim uncompromising realism (I suppose), the filmmakers have tipped over into soapie melodrama territory. The further the film progresses the worse it gets. At a certain point, things become ludicrously ‘tragic’. Poor old Job had nothing on these dudes. It’s fair dinkum excruciating to watch it all unravel. Yet, somehow, even lower depths are plumbed as the sorry mess lurches to its end with a cringeworthy clichéd portrayal of a near-death experience.
How ever was this thing awarded Best British Independent Film for 2012? It’s an ill-hewn melodramatic tragi-fest draped in arthouse garb, and little else.
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