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LIAM (director/writer: Stephen Frears; screenwriters: Jimmy McGovern/based on “The Back Crack Boy” by Joseph McKeown; cinematographer: Andrew Dunn; editor: Kristina Hetherington; music: John Murphy; cast: Ian Hart (Dad), Claire Hackett (Mum), Anne Reid (Mrs. Abernathy), Anthony Borrows (Liam), David Hart (Con), Megan Burns (Teresa), Russell Dixon (Father Ryan), Bernadette Shortt (Lizzie), Jane Gurnett (Mrs. Samuels), David Knopov (Mr. Samuels), Gema Loveday (Jane Samuels); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Colin McKeown/Martin Tempia; Lions Gate Films; 2000-UK)
” …its dramatic efforts are contrived and strain credibility.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The movie was made for BBC TV. Director Stephen Frears (“High Fidelity“/”The Grifters“) tells a straightforward poverty story set in the Depression of the 1930s in an Irish neighborhood of Liverpool. It’s based on the novel by Joseph McKeown, “The Back Crack Boy”, and chronicles a familiar ‘on-the-dole’ story with deep religious undertones as scripted by Jimmy McGovern, who never gives the story legs to run on its own. It never evolves into something fresh, and its dramatic efforts are contrived and strain credibility. It also suffers because the main characters are never fleshed out, the script is filled with sweeping generalizations, there is a flatness that its grim humor can’t shake, and the cuteness of Borrows’ saucer-eyed, dimpled tyke who when fearful or embarrassed can’t speak and starts stuttering turns into a running gag that soon wears out its welcome. Borrows is not at an age where he’s knowledgeable enough to take in what he observes and the film, which he anchors, is therefore on shaky ground with him as its anchor.

What the film should be commended for is its unflinching portrayal of its anti-hero Ian Hart, whose descent into blind hatred is not without picturing him as a somewhat sympathetic lost soul who is not all that bad when he was the family breadwinner and he is not without some redeeming features even in his fall from grace. Hart remains a disturbing figure, but he has more grit than the glutton priest who is demonized and made into an uninteresting one-dimensional character. Also, the film successfully connects the Catholic guilt-trip over sex as it’s engineered from early on in childhood by the Church’s stress on that subject and the effects of poverty on one’s low self-esteem. It also connects the rise of fascism with unemployment and poverty, but they’re hardly startling revelations.

The story is witnessed through the innocent eyes of seven-year-old Liam Sullivan (Anthony Borrows), who lives in Liverpool’s working-class neighborhood with a much older, working brother Con (David Hart) and a slightly older sister Teresa (Megan Burns), his earnest mum (Claire Hackett), and proud dad (Ian Hart). Dad’s the hard-working breadwinner but when the shipyard closes where he works on the docks, he takes his anger out on the bosses, then the newly arrived Irish immigrants, then he steps up his hatred toward the local priest and the Church, and finally he becomes so embittered he joins the British Union of Fascists (Black Shirts) and blames the Jews for his poverty and unemployment. Meanwhile the older son flirts with socialism and splits with his father over ideology, Mum tries to keep the family intact and looking respectable in public without any money coming in, and the youngsters battle with their personal problems at school and at work.

The shame of the family’s demise, is that the film opens to a happier day when the father had work and he could freely laugh. Mom and dad and the sulking Con are shown going to the pub for a buoyant drunken celebration for New Year’s Eve, as Liam and his sister sneak down to the pub and watch the drinking festivities through an opening in the street window.

While Dad is out of work and busy blaming others for his problems, Liam is having trouble in his religious instruction class at the parochial school. The teacher is Mrs. Abernathy (Anne Reid), a martinet who forces the Church dogma down the classes’ throats. She teaches that sin leads to a filthy soul and eternal damnation, as “sin drives the nails deeper into the hands of Christ.” She’s backed up by the stern Father Ryan (Russell Dixon), who describes the fires of hell as punishment for those who don’t confess to their sins. In one of the pivotal scenes, as Liam gets a new suit for his first Holy Communion, his father gets up from his pew in the church and rants against the priest for bleeding the poor dry, for the immigrants ruining his country and for the Jews profiting every time the children have to buy new clothes to go to a church ceremony. Mum’s pride is shown to be as strong as dad’s, and she fights so that the family will not be held back by its poverty. She insists that Liam look good for Communion, and becomes too proud to beg or ask for help.

The sweet Teresa gets a job as a maid with a wealthy Jewish family, who treat her nicely though she feels uncomfortable by their upper class breeding and good manners. But when Teresa confesses to the priest that the lady of the house (Jane Gurnett) gave her hush money as a reward for warning her that her husband was listening to her telephone conversation with her lover, the priest tells her to quit this sinful job. This leads to an unbelievable event that destroys the family, as the fascist father and the other Black Shirts toss a Molotov cocktail into the Jewish family’s house while Teresa is in there telling them she has to quit because of the priest.

“Liam” won an award for ensemble acting in Venice. And, to its credit, cinematographer Andrew Dunn allows the city to have a dull muted look, as there are many shots of union halls, the shipyards, and red rows of identical houses. But despite the reality of these grim atmospheric shots of those Depression times and the good acting jobs, the film runs smack into a stifling case of being too empty to say anything that isn’t obvious. In the end the story fails to resonate as it leads to too much sentimentality and too flat a portrait of the Church and is too generalized a take on the politics of the day. The film failed to move me, as it failed to go anywhere after it set itself up as a subversive tale about someone who is willing to take a stand for his convictions. The anti-hero’s convictions fizzled, as did the story. It ended up turning out not to be about its heartfelt convictions or about the development of Liam, but it turned on a mere plot device that seemed ludicrous and hardly believable.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”