REVIEW: Frear's Great Chronicle For 'Liam'
by Eddie Cockrell
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Eddie Cockrell reviewed "Liam" during the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival. The film will open in theaters this Friday.]
In the presskit for "Liam" distributed at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film screened following its premiere in Venice, director Stephen Frears had this to say about the production: "I made 'Liam' because I admire writer Jimmy McGovern" (whose credits include "Cracker" and "Priest"). He is one of the great chroniclers of life in Britain as it really is. "Although I am neither working class nor Catholic, this account of childhood reminded me of the years I spent with my mother after the war. I made this film for television because the BBC used to make films like this. It's a tradition I think should be kept alive."
This statement, at once terse and self-effacing, sets the stage for "Liam," a small film from a director with a big heart (Frears introduced the first public Toronto screening by warning people they were in the wrong cinema for the Hollywood fare playing next door). In the Irish Catholic quarter of 1930s Liverpool, schoolboy Liam (Anthony Borrows), the youngest of three children, endures a typically severe upbringing: his father (Ian Hart) is laid off from the docks but too proud to accept charity from the local church, while his older sister works as a domestic for a well-to-do Jewish family. The film charts the proud father's increasingly harrowing attempts to find work, played against the strict and often humorous schooling of Liam and the adventures of his siblings and mother (Claire Hackett).
His third film of the year, following "High Fidelity" and that live television remake of "Fail Safe" masterminded by George Clooney, "Liam" is a project clearly close to Frears' heart. The very fact of its existence is indicative of the director's work: here's a career that includes both trenchant social commentary ("My Beautiful Laundrette," "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid," "The Snapper") and Hollywood gloss ("Dangerous Liaisons," "The Grifters," "Mary Reilly"). "Liam" falls clearly in the former camp, with its often impenetrable accents and specific milieu. Thus, moviegoers attracted by the promise of Frears' more high-profile work may be mystified by the deliberate craft of "Liam," which offers no concessions for the non-British viewer.
Following his pungent supporting role in Hans Petter Moland's "Aberdeen" (which garnered him the shared Best Actor award at this summer's Karlovy Vary International Film Festival), the chameleon-like Ian Hart makes the most of a role that in other hands might have become dour and strident. He's that rare actor that can play almost any age and social position, and the flickers of anger, sorrow and affection that dance across his face encapsulate perfectly the inarticulate rage of the working class in a sad era of British labor. Young actor Anthony Borrows brings a beguiling honesty to the title role, and the heart of the film lies in the scenes in which he experiences the joys and setbacks of childhood: with his expressive face, at once boyish and knowing, Frears is able to mute the harsher realities of the family's hardscrabble existence with a sense of wonder and humor.
Yet it is the very precision of the film that makes it a challenge in the American market. While universal in its story of family and strife, it is performed in an authentic-sounding regional accent as evocative as it is difficult, suggesting that a subtitled print may be in order (Shooting Gallery took the same tack last year with Peter Mullan's "Orphans"). And viewers expecting the brisk pace of Frears' best work will be disappointed, as the director seems far more interested in charting the more humorous aspects of young Borrows' Catholic education than milking the inherent drama of the family's struggle. Still, the film has a fine sense of time and place, with the gloomy and narrow world of working-class Liverpool played against the light and space of the upper-class Jewish family, indicating the wide gulf between the two.
Finally, "Liam" is a slight film in a formidable career, a reaffirmation of Frears' determined approach to balancing Hollywood filmmaking with more personal stories of his homeland. And that's a tradition that should be kept alive.
[Eddie Cockrell is a Maryland-based film critic covering the Toronto International Film Festival for Variety and nitrateonline.com.]