For anyone who picked up on British director Stephen Frears at the time he made The Hit and My Beautiful Laundrette, a question that must have come to mind--what do this man's films have in common?--has only become more consternating over the years. Prick Up Your Ears and Dangerous Liaisons seem worlds apart in period, budget, themes, direction and emotional tone, and about the only thing in common between two of Frears' recent films, The Hi-Lo Country and High Fidelity, is that they have the same word in the title--spelled differently, of course. Frears' identity isn't like Howard Hawks', established across many genres by a laconic, easy-to-miss style, or John Huston's, detected, perhaps, by his movies' manliness, craziness and quality. More often than not, Frears' projects are personal, and the successes handily outnumber the flubs, but add them up any which way and they still don't reveal a signature. Nonetheless, the concentrated darkness and devouring beauty of Liam, maybe Frears' most unflinching drama, demand that we try yet again to pinpoint the pulse at work. The Hit, Dangerous Liaisons and The Grifters are all among Frears' most visually disciplined films, and also his most fiendish, where people become monsters pursuing the upper hand. In Liam, the twist is that gaining command means ordinary survival, not against evil agents, but class interests and historical circumstances. Set in 1930s Liverpool, Liam, based on The Back Crack Boy by Jimmy McGovern, etches the fall of a dockworker's family amidst the Depression and heightened political strife across Europe.

When the family's breadwinner, simply known as Dad (Ian Hart), gets laid off, he must queue up each morning for day jobs at the shipyard. Without secure employment, he is at the mercy of spot hirers. Maybe because of the desperate scowl on his face, or maybe for no good reason, he finds himself passed over again and again. His daughter, Teresa (Megan Burns), has been working as a maid for a prosperous family, and, along with her older brother Con (David Hart), a laborer, is bringing in the family's only income. Eight-year-old Liam (Anthony Borrows), though the youngest, is in many respects at the center of the issues facing the family. His upcoming First Communion ceremony is going to cost plenty. Moreover, Liam is resisting the Catholic values instilled in the rest of the family. For him, the religious instruction he receives at school is senseless, or contradictory, or irrelevant; however his young mind sorts it out, the lesson of damnation doesn't wash. Besides, the dogma doesn't explain the differences he's observed between his mother's naked body (Claire Hackett) and a nude in a school art book (a bit comically, a stylization by Ingres). When his father notices that his landlord, his former employer and his daughter's boss are all Jewish, he becomes, not an activist in local fascism, but more plausibly, ripe for it. Father and younger son, each in their own way, are on the path to becoming malcontents.

One of the beauties of Liam is that it never loses sight that these are small people, incapable of heroics. Denouements unfold a lot more like Brecht than big-studio hoopla. Dad's stand for 'his country' is stupidly provincial to begin with, and immediately backfires, with gruesomely tragic results. Liam is just a child who can't shrug off the astounding pressures at school. Indeed, in Liam we see what workers for ages could expect from a religious institution: brute social control. Frears risks an anti-Catholic reading, but proposes that the system be viewed politically. The Catholic Church is divided by class, like everything else.

Frears also meets the objection that watching the grim pageant of poverty is a downer in the absolutely necessary way, by classicizing it. Practically everything in the visual field is reduced to blacks and pale oranges; perhaps these are, not as symbols but in the final emotional payoff, death and life hanging on, respectively. Simply every shot is worked into a fine, balanced contribution to a whole aesthetic effect, conveying both adversity and resilience. If Liam were much more beautiful, it could pass as a Terence Davies movie (Distant Voices, Still Lives; The Neon Bible).

--Peter Henne