Review: ‘Liam’

This depiction of the trials and tribulations of a working-class Catholic family during the Depression is a far more intimate viewing experience than the similarly themed "Angela's Ashes." One of the small-scale films, like "The Snapper," that British director Stephen Frears tackles between his bigger assignments, "Liam" is told from the point of view of the 7-year-old title character, played by Anthony Borrows, a completely natural child actor. Engaging pic should have no trouble finding theatrical bookings in most territories. It's unlikely to break any box office records, but it will have a long life in ancillary.

This depiction of the trials and tribulations of a working-class Catholic family during the Depression is a far more intimate viewing experience than the similarly themed “Angela’s Ashes.” One of the small-scale films, like “The Snapper,” that British director Stephen Frears tackles between his bigger assignments, “Liam” is told from the point of view of the 7-year-old title character, played by Anthony Borrows, a completely natural child actor. Engaging pic should have no trouble finding theatrical bookings in most territories. It’s unlikely to break any box office records, but it will have a long life in ancillary.

In 1930s Liverpool, Liam, a bright, affectionate child with a speech impediment, lives with his parents and older brother and sister in their small rented house. At Catholic school, the horrors of hellfire are daily drummed into him by a teacher (Anne Reid) and the priest (Russell Dixon) as he prepares for his first Communion.

Dad (Ian Hart) works at a shipyard; his eldest son, Con (David Hart), is also employed, and during the course of the film, young Teresa (Megan Burns, who picked up the Marcello Mastroianni award at the Venice fest for outstanding perf by a young actor) gets a job as servant at the home of the shipyard’s Jewish owner. Mam (Claire Hackett) binds the family together.

When the shipyard suddenly closes down, Dad is unable to get work. Increasingly angry and bitter, Dad turns to fascism as an easy answer to unemployment, blaming the Irish and the Jews for his problems. Ultimately, his involvement with the Black Shirts leads to violence.

This potent examination of the seeds of intolerance makes the film highly involving and lifts it above the usual chronicle of an impoverished family. Screenwriter Jimmy McGovern, who wrote “Priest” and a great deal of quality British TV, has come up with a passionate drama bursting with humor and affection, and Frears handles the material with his customary skill and intelligence.

Because the story is told from the child’s perspective, there’s a slight exaggeration to some of the adult characters, especially the priest and the teacher, who continually harangue the youngsters about how filthy their souls will become if they sin and how intolerable are the fires of hell.

Despite John Murphy’s sometimes cloying score, which tends to sentimentalize what is basically an unsentimental film, “Liam” is an impressive achievement. Hart imbues Dad with all the pent-up frustration the role requires, while Hackett is the archetypal earth mother, fiercely defending her family. With his sweet face and cheeky disposition, Borrows is perfectly cast as Liam.

Production values are modest, but the burnished photography has an authentic look, and everything in the film feels exactly right.

Liam

U.K.-Germany

Production

A BBC Films presentation of a Liam Films/Road Movies (Berlin) production, in association with Mida, Diaphana, Bim, WDR/Arte, ARD/Degeto Film. (International sales: the Sales Co., London.) Produced by Colin McKeown, Martin Tempia. Executive producers, David M. Thompson, Tessa Ross, Sally Hibbin. Co-producer, Ulrich Felsberg. Directed by Stephen Frears. Screenplay, Jimmy McGovern.

Crew

Camera (color), Andrew Dunn; editor, Kristina Hetherington; music, John Murphy; production designer, Stephen Fineren; costume designer, Alexandra Caulfield; sound (Dolby digital), Chris Atkinson; assistant director, Trevor Gittings; casting, Leo Davies, Pippa Hall. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 4, 2000. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentation.) Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Dad - Ian Hart Mam - Claire Hackett Liam - Anthony Borrows Con - David Hart Teresa - Megan Burns Mrs. Abernathy - Anne Reid Father Ryan - Russell Dixon Auntie Aggie - Julia Deakin Uncle Tom - Andrew Schofield Lizzie - Bernadette Shortt
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