Following in the footsteps of Blighty stage helmers-turned-filmmakers Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry, acclaimed theater director Rufus Norris (“London Road”) takes his own crack at the bigscreen with “Broken,” presenting the interlocking tales of three neighboring families on an English private housing estate. Melding heightened drama with quirky, state-of-the-nation social realism, the pic aims to undercut epic plot contrivance with naturalistic perfs and a lyrical shooting style. Further fest action is assured, although theatrical prospects look decidedly niche, and ancillary a challenge, for this hard-to-categorize item.
Eleven-year-old live-wire Skunk (newcomer Eloise Lawrence, impressive) lives with her lawyer father, Archie (Tim Roth); her teen brother, Jed (Bill Milner, unrecognizable as the goofy waif in “Son of Rambow”); and her nanny, Kasia (Zana Marjanovic). During one summer vacation, Skunk witnesses belligerent neighbor Bob Oswald (Rory Kinnear) launch an assault on mild-mannered, learning-impaired Rick (Robert Emms, “War Horse”), a brutal, seemingly unprovoked attack that will not prove to be the film’s only flash of bloody violence.
A coarse-tongued widower, Oswald has instilled ample aggression but little self-asteem in his three troubled offspring: teens Saskia (Faye Daveney) and Susan (Rosalie Kosky-Hensman), and the slightly younger Sunrise (Martha Bryant), who has already begun to experiment sexually. Oswald is fiercely protective of his daughters, but openly hostile toward everyone else.
Based on Daniel Clay’s novel of the same name, the narratively promiscuous pic also finds room for the affairs of Kasia and her commitment-phobic boyfriend, Mike (Cillian Murphy), a teacher at the school that Skunk is about to attend. Set free from the constraints of the stage, Norris giddily flits among his characters at will, seemingly for the sheer impetuous joy of it rather than for any particular dramatic purpose. Time-fractured storytelling is another favored device.
Conflict arises not only from the loose-cannon Oswald clan but also from Skunk’s Type 1 diabetes, which requires frequent self-administered blood testing. On the cusp of adolescence, and increasingly apt to roam the adjacent countryside and junkyard with her new pal Dillon (George Sargeant), Skunk causes her family no end of stress with her life-endangering absences.
While adapting screenwriter Mark O’Rowe (“Intermission,” “Boy A”) struggles to find a coherent vessel for the story’s copious melodramatic incident, Norris’ film does find a beating heart, if not exactly a focus, in the tender father-daughter relationship between Archie and Skunk, nicely underplayed by Roth and Laurence.
Blur frontman Damon Albarn, who previously worked with Norris on the opera “Doctor Dee,” contributes an alternately jaunty and somber score through side project Electric Wave Bureau, with young Laurence providing character-rich vocals on two songs, prominently used. Lenser Rob Hardy (“Boy A”) offers framing choices that consistently disdain the obvious.