Tuesday, 5 January 2010

313 x Fuck.

The Brits seem to be able to consistently pull off solid realist films more than pretty much any other country. Shane Meadows does it, Andrea Arnold does it, Mike Leigh does it. But probably the longest serving member of this Brit-realist culture is Ken Loach, the master of depression. Loved by Cannes, he’s never been embraced commercially or, really, by awards-givers on the other side of the Atlantic, unlike, for example, Leigh. But for the last twenty years or so he has been putting out powerful films about the lower classes of the United Kingdom, and doing them very well. (I will note that I almost had a heart attack when I saw a poster for Looking For Eric, his latest, earlier this year with the word ‘heart-warming’ on it - what? Ken Loach? Heart-warming? Has the entire world gone mad?)

I’ve seen a few of them, but right now without an internet connection handy all I can think of is The Wind That Shakes The Barley with Cillian Murphy, a grueling but powerful look at the long-running tensions between the Irish and the English. Sweet Sixteen, his 2002 feature that I saw the other day, is set in Scotland this time (he doesn’t discriminate when it comes to which realm of the UK he sets his films in), and is a much more immediate film.

In his debut film role, Martin Compston gives a stunning turn as the fifteen-almost-sixteen year old central character Liam. Kicked out of his grandfather’s home (which he shares with his mother’s lover), he sets about exacting revenge by stealing the drugs hidden out in the kennel of this house, with a view to selling them to purchase a caravan that he and his mother can live in when she is released from prison the day before his sixteenth birthday. This small-scale, initially short-term narcotic crime endeavour quickly escalates after he steps on the turf of a major name in drugs in the town, and he is coerced into joining this drug ring. He proves quite successful, and very quickly the money is rolling in - he has his own apartment, a sharp suit, and everything is going well. He loses his relationship with his best friend, Pinball (William Ruane), but he regains a strong relationship with his sister and her young son. Plus, his mother is about to be released, and that is all he cares to look forward to. When she gets out, no more shall she take drugs, but instead will be able to enjoy the fruits of his labour, selling on to other addicts. 

The world of drugs is never really pretty, but Loach does an incredible job of not showing it as all bad. Well, he shows that Liam does, indeed, get many benefits out of it, and yes, he has to make some hard decisions, but who doesn’t have to if you want to get ahead in any industry? Just because these decisions involve knives doesn’t necessarily make them more morally objectionable. Don’t get me wrong, Loach does not glorify this gangster world. Instead, he shows it as it is. Highs and lows. Ups and downs. Winners and losers. It’s just that the stakes, both to gain and to lose, are higher, and often involve your health, your mobility, or your life.

Central to the effectiveness of the film is that stunning central portrayal by the young Compston. He is pretty much present for the entire film, and his likability despite some of the things he does is what makes the film sing, makes it work. If you weren’t on some level rooting for his success, it would all fall spectacularly to pieces. Barry Ackroyd captures the sparseness and starkness of the town without exploiting poverty, instead giving us the simple way it is. And Loach draws it all out without ever seemingly wasting a word, a shot, a moment. It is a very simple concept, but it is superbly executed. In reality, I think it elevated that world of realism by avoiding the horrible sense of despair that is so often front and centre, and by instead creating a world of hope in unexpected circumstances. Maybe I’ll have to check out Looking For Eric sooner rather than later - it looks like he just may be able to make it work. 4.5 stars.

(By the by, the title of the post is reference to the number of times 'fuck' (or its variations) is apparently said in the film. That seems like a lot. In fact, it would make it about every 20 seconds. And you know what? I didn't really notice it being used excessively. Though, there were numerous points where I couldn't actually really understand what they were saying, due to their accents...)


  1. Ken was a guest at Palic Film Festival in my hometown last summer, and he really got a lot of positive reactions from critics who treated him with the utmost respect. His WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY actually won the grand-prix at our festival in 2006. while amazing Cillian Murphy was awarded at the same festival for his stunning role in BREAKFAST ON PLUTO.

  2. I LOVED Breakfast On Pluto. Great film. Love Cillian.

  3. he was especially adorable in one interview explaining how he hates when people call him Killian instead of Sillian :))