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by Andrew Howe

"The dark end of the street"
3 stars

The cheerless existence of life on the British poverty line has provided the source material for several memorable films, from Mike Leigh's Naked to Mark Herman's Brassed Off. The latest cab off the rank is Stephen Frears's Liam, a serious-minded chronicle of disintegrating family ties in 1930's Liverpool which proves, once again, that anyone who believes that "love conquers all" has never spent time in a Depression-era bread line.

The title character is a 7 year-old tyke (Anthony Borrows) whose sense of wellbeing is undermined by a daily dose of fire and brimstone from his Catholic schoolteacher. To make matters worse, his Dad (Ian Hart) has received his marching orders from a bankrupt factory, and since he is (naturally) a proud man, this places undue strain on his relationship with his wife (Claire Hackett) and daughter Teresa (Megan Burns), whose job as a maid has lead her to covet the comfortable existence of her employers.

None of the actors are particularly well-known, but they rise to the occasion with impeccable performances. Hart dominates every scene in which he appears, and his resentment at those he blames for his situation (which is just about everybody) is palpable. The script forces him to lapse into stereotype on occasion (his resistance to taking charity is a well-worn dramatic device), but his intense performance carries the film for much of its duration.

Liam is a rather cute little sprog, though his propensity for stuttering causes the dialogue to drag on occasion. His unusual subplot is suitably memorable, supplying what little humour the film exhibits, and Borrows' disarming performance provides welcome relief from the time-honoured Precocious Child Actor Syndrome.

The film is scripted by Jimmy McGovern, who in recent years has staked a claim as one of the premier voices of the British underclass. His work on the outstanding television series The Lakes was a case study in characterisation, but with that production he had considerable room to move.
Liam's 91 minute running time, on the other hand, leaves little scope for mucking about, and the script spends way too much time chronicling Liam's classroom brow-beatings and other peripheral concerns, which is time that would have been better spent delving into his parent's psyches or fleshing out the relationships and themes. It would be unfair to accuse McGovern of scripting two-dimensional characters- they all slot neatly into their respective categories (proud Dad, harried Mam, confused kids), so we can fill in most of the blanks ourselves - but we never gain an investment in their lives, and as a result the experience is nowhere near as involving as it might have been.

The narrative holds few surprises, beating a predictable three-act path (anchored by Dad the stern but fair family man, Dad the resentful layabout and, finally, Dad the raving lunatic) to an appallingly contrived conclusion. The themes are exactly what you would expect from a plot synopsis - self-esteem as a function of gainful employment, the role of a steady income in promoting family harmony, the role of religion in promoting sleepless nights, man's propensity to blame others for his misfortunes, senseless violence as a cathartic experience - but there's not enough time for McGovern to explore them in any depth, and in any event it's nothing we haven't seen before. McGovern's laudable work for television suggests that he works best with an extended running time and a premise which allows him to make use of his cutting gallows humour, and I can only hope that he is one day provided with an appropriate vehicle for his transition to the big screen.

None of this should be taken to suggest that Liam is a failure - the performances alone make it worthy of our time, and Frears captures the oppressive atmosphere of the era with some exquisitely downbeat visuals. Unfortunately, its underwritten characters and broad-brush scripting dilute its impact, leaving us with a mildly diverting slice-of-life which is considerably less engaging than its pedigree promises.

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originally posted: 06/27/01 13:07:57
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User Comments

2/23/03 Phil M. Aficionado Andrew Howe's review sums up my reaction so precisely, why bother to write one? Average+ 3 stars
10/10/01 Heather Moving, touching movie about a working class Catholic family in Liverpool, one to look for 5 stars
8/07/01 Louise Cutts A wonderful and accurate evocation of the Catholic experience and family values of the time 4 stars
7/03/01 Tracy Foulds Anthony Borrows was excellent,film very good too. 4 stars
7/02/01 Vanessa Moving, compelling - best child performance ever! 5 stars
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  05-Oct-2001 (R)


  12-Jul-2001 (M)

Directed by
  Stephen Frears

Written by
  Jimmy McGovern

  Ian Hart
  Claire Hackett
  Julie Deakin
  David Carey
  David Hart
  Megan Burns

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