Liverpool, England in the 1930s is as good a setting to depict grinding poverty in the shadow of the upper class as anywhere else in europe at the time. And "Liam" is not unlike many other films dealing with the socio-economic conditions that prevailed, the most recent of them, Alan Parker's "Angela's Ashes". If you got the point from that one you might be disinclined to venture once more into this world of disadvantage and cheerlessness.
For the emotionally hardy, however, there is good story telling and a few laughs in this as the lives of one family are traced in their coping with issues of growing up as well as with the bitter realities of mass job loss and political extremism. Stephen Frears, the director of "The Grifters", following his not so successful "High Fidelity", covers a lot of ground in his canvas of details and does it all in a neat 91 minutes.
Starting with the central idea of a loving family whose father (Ian Hart) is one of the fortunate few still working in the shipyard, the town's major employer, after so many have been laid off. As the story starts, the good times are still possible on a New Year's Eve as the joys of life are expressed in the happy customs of celebration. Mother (or Mam) (Claire Hackett) revels in the partying as the kids, 7-year old son Liam (Anthony Borrows) and his older sister Teresa (Megan Burns) enjoy it vicariously from their hiding places.
But this happiness is the high point against which the rest of the story contrasts. The shipyard closes and dad loses his job, facing the dole and/or a hiring steward who never picks him for day labor because of his refusal to engage in the customary payoff. Dad is too stubborn to compromise his principles but neither is he able to manage his resentments and anger which are to find their ultimate expression in bullying his family in his home and fascistic outpourings of hate on the streets.
Little Liam attends a bible class that infuses its young parishioners with church doctrine designed to leave its mark through through the media of fright and hellish images. Liam, who suffers from a severe speech impediment, seems not to buy the fire-and-brimstone message, though he dutifully conforms to the requirements of confession and communion, sometimes cowering in the presence of Father Ryan (Russell Dixon) and his unbending single-minded teacher, Mrs. Abernathy (Anne Reid). Their message, one might surmise, is intended to sustain the church through times of desperation and political upheaval. The extremes of religious indoctrination, however, become the film's main source of comic relief particularly in those moments when the meaning of purgatorial consequences register on little Liam's expressively silent face as he applies what he has learned to his own experiences.
Older sister Teresa takes us on a coming-of-age journey as she lands a job with the rich family that runs the shipyard. There's no boy involved in her pre-adult maturation but she first suffers the indignity of having to lie about her faith in order to get the job in the Jewish household. Soon afterward, she becomes an unwilling intermediary in the rich wife's adulterous affair and the beneficiary of shilling tips for her complicity. She is forced to face matters of ethics and self respect before such ideas normally concern those of her age and she must do so against the best interests of her family's financial needs.
In a flawlessly chosen cast, Claire Hackett turns out to be a "find". Here is an actress who may not have the looks to attract glamor roles but it's no accident that director Frears chose her for this role. In doing so, he confirms a very sharp eye for casting and the details of inbred humanity that adds richness to his work. Hackett previously played Tilly in the 1993 BBC series, "Gallowglass" and she was Madame Homais in last year's Madame Bovary. We look forward to seeing more of this richly nuanced actress whose happy moments are so totally absorbing that we long to see her happy again as impoverishment grinds her family down.
One might question titling this film for one of the characters when he is no more (and no less) vital or predominant in the story than any other. One guess might be that the distributors felt that leading with a young, endearing face in the ads would engender more ticket sales than a more descriptive title. Hope they're right since this character driven slice of depression years drama is worth seeing. One of its accomplishments in character portrayal is how engrossed we are as each character "takes stage" to carry us through his or her piece of the story line.
It's not a "Grifters" but it's a concisely fleshed-out morality tale. It suffers from a stereotype or two, the first being the resentful, ultimately weakling nature of Dad. While the script thankfully avoids the cliche of his turning to drink, as in the relentless "Angela's Ashes", his loss of self esteem leading to hatred feels a bit overtrod.
Secondly, one might raise a concern about all the rich people being Jewish, which may be an accurate portrayal of the time and place but one can't help wondering if it's not just convenient and potentially hurtful stereotyping. We'll have to let Mr. Frears and his screenwriter, Jimmy McGovern, set the record straight on that point, should they be inclined to do so.
In any event, seeing all of Mr. Frears' films is a journey unto itself, so wide ranging are his subject matters and styles. The consistency is the intelligence and taste he renders, to the continued benefit of a receptive and loyal audience.
Rated B, for Bleak.