This is despair porn. And you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s one of the biggest sub-genres in British independent cinema. Thug violence, thug redemption, the loss of innocence, one person sitting alone in a big empty room, tears from bruised eyes; Tyrannosaur, Fishtank, This Is England. Now add Broken to the list.
Which isn’t to say Broken is bad. It’s good, the three examples I used before it are great, and I do recommend it. I just find it – both the film and the genre – a little exhausting after a while. I get it; they’re cheap to make, there’s no end of new (albeit horrible) stories of human misery out there, and the raw, unflinching material attracts consistently excellent actors, which more often than not makes them a gripping watch. I just wish that despair porn wasn’t synonymous with prestige, because while Broken has all its crying, punching and mental health problems in more or less the right places, the whole thing feels a little fuzzy.
Let’s start with the positives first though.
The performances are uniformly brilliant. Everyone involved grapples with the material to staggering effect, just cramming every scene with nuance, humanity, shades of warmth and colour. Tim Roth, Rory Kinnear, Cillian Murphy, Robert Emms all do great work, but the film belongs to its leading lady. Eloise Laurence is astonishingly good. On paper, it’s just another one of those roles, a coming-of-age tween, with a sparky attitude, type-1 diabetes and a quirky nickname – Skunk. Laurence is just so natural though, investing Skunk with such a rich life behind the eyes that we quickly look past the cliches. She becomes a living, breathing person and this is what makes Broken work. She’s our anchor, a mainstay of hope and innocence in an increasingly woeful tale.
The direction from Rufus Norris is assured as well. You don’t get a huge sense of his signature style from the film, but this allows for a series of well-composed, well-paced scenes, allowing his actors to carry the audience’s attention rather than obtrusive direction or editing.
Through his direction, and the script by Mark O’Rowe, we also find a nice vein of playfulness that runs through much of the film. Touches of witty editing, light moments from the script, or a quick burst of sunlight or colour from the camerawork, add teeny tiny sprinkles of levity throughout.
The negatives now. The film is almost farcically depressing. It starts as it means to go on with Rory Kinnear’s thuggish father of three beating the red out of a teenager with mental health problems. This establishes the threat of violence nicely, creating a palpable dread that lingers throughout, but the film doesn’t really let up from there and the cumulative effect of all the suffering becomes almost ludicrous. I won’t spoil any of it, because I do think it’s a good film worth seeing, but by the film’s closing moments, as woe after woe after woe piles up, it would have actually been more cheerful to watch cameraphone footage of a rabbit being kicked to death by my own dad.
The circumstances get so dire that what once was compelling and emotionally honest, became a touch contrived and callous. The cast sell the absolute hell out of it, and the characters’ redemption/damnation still struck home for that reason, but the film lost me a little in its unrestrained sadness, dampening the triumph/loss felt.
There are also slight structural problems. The film’s not really about much of anything. All the themes are there – fatherhood, community, perseverance, but they don’t develop into something the audience can take home. The plotting’s just a bit slapdash. Things just happen, one after another, in the life of Skunk. This isn’t terrible. They’re all engaging, well-acted things, but they don’t feel like they’re a whole story when the credits roll.
Some characters fulfil their arc by accident, rather than choice, some don’t get one. The film’s got a lot of life to it, but other than us caring deeply about Skunk and wanting her to generally do well, it’s quite tricky to know what the film wants us to feel. Sad, sure, but about anything in particular, or just sad because sometimes bad things happen?
Like I said, Broken is not bad, not anywhere approaching bad, but its filmmaking doesn’t quite match its incredible cast or its engaging subject matter, which, in a thickening crowd of like-minded competition, renders it a slightly missed opportunity, if a very worthy one.
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