Movie Information

Genre: Drama
Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Ian Hart, Claire Hackett, Anthony Borrows, David Hart, Megan Burns
Rated: R

Stephen Frears hasn’t made a film this good in ages — maybe not since 1987′s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and certainly not since 1993′s The Snapper. In fact, in recent years it’s seemed as if much that was so good about Frears’ mid-80s work was his fortuitous teaming with writer Hanif Kureishi on My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie — an idea that seemed borne out by Kureishi’s 1991 directorial effort, London Kills Me, which suggested the earlier films had more to do with the writer than the director. While Frears certainly has a good script by Jimmy McGovern (Priest) and fine actors with Liam, it is very much a director’s film. Small in scope, it’s a movie that achieves its greatest power in the shadings Frears brings to it as director, especially in scene transitions that often serve to underscore the film’s themes. For example, a scene in which the expensive rituals of the Catholic Church is brought to bear on the poorest of the parishioners is followed by a scene in which leftover food is being scraped into the garbage. Similarly, the drumming-in of hell-fire and brimstone theology on children is often followed by fire imagery (in fact, fire runs symbolically — and finally literally — throughout the film). While the film is certainly no Valentine to Catholicism (hardly to be expected from the screenwriter of Priest), it’s essentially and ultimately a film about prejudice and intolerance and the effects of this on the impoverished Sullivan family in 1930s Liverpool, largely through the point of view of seven year old Liam (newcomer Anthony Borrows). What seems to be escaping a number of American critics is the fact that making the Sullivans Catholic adds another layer to the issue of prejudice, since English Catholics are themselves a minority. The film puts this forth in an implicit manner early on at a New Year’s Eve party where two women “do battle” with each other by singing pro-IRA and pro-protestant songs at each other. It therefore makes Dad’s (Ian Hart) descent into prejudices against the Jews and the Irish in his efforts to “fix” the blame for what is wrong with his own life all the more ironic, pathetic, and terrifying. Feeling disenfranchised and hopeless, he fastens on these scapegoats and even joins Oswald Mosley’s British fascist terrorist movement — with the tragic results that form the film’s climax. (The scene where Dad puts on the signature Mosley black tunic is a little masterpiece of subtle filmmaking.) If all this sounds like nothing more than a period piece, think a little more deeply, since this same story could easily be updated — just change the targets and replace Mosley’s “blackshirts” with a skinhead movement, or, in fact, any hatred-based group that blames some other group for its misfortunes. Liam is a frequently disturbing film, but never to the degree that it loses sight of simple humanity and the comedy of every-day life no matter what the circumstances. The confusion young Liam suffers — and he suffers greatly from it — over the classical paintings of nude women he’s seen as contrasted with an accidental glimpse of his naked mother is both funny and charmingly realistic. Similarly, the film refuses to settle on clearcut villains. The priest (Russell Dixon) who so terrifies Liam — and goodness knows how many other small boys – with his fiery rhetoric about their sins “driving the nails deeper” into the hands of Christ is not himself a bad man, just overzealous and misguided, as well as seemingly blind to the poverty that surrounds him. It may be argued that the film’s climax is melodramatic, but it’s hard not to see that it’s also a thematically sound indictment of the evils of terrorism, and one toward which the film has been building all along. This is powerful filmmaking that should not be overlooked.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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