Film Review: BrokenRufus Norris' tender first film struggles to get a firm handle on the material but doesn’t lack for freshness or charm.
While he’s somewhat hampered by a thematically diffuse screenplay that has too many distractions crowding its protagonist, British theatre director Rufus Norris makes a generally accomplished move into film with Broken. The visually pleasing drama is graced by a lovely score from Britpop eminence Damon Albarn’s Electric Wave Bureau outfit and by fine performances, notably from a soulful Tim Roth and appealing young newcomer Eloise Laurence.
Given how incisively screenwriter Mark O’Rowe adapted Jonathan Trigell’s book for the trenchant 2007 drama Boy A, it’s disappointing that he has not managed to do the same for Daniel Clay’s novel. The fault may also lie with a novice director unwilling to make hard choices in the editing room. But there are simply too many characters jostling for attention and too many competing plot strands in a not-quite-seamless marriage of hard-edged social realism with a lyrical novelistic overlay. That said, the film is rich in poignant moments and negotiates its frequent shifts from violence to gentleness to sorrow with sensitivity. Best known for his production of the English-language stage adaptation of Festen, Norris definitely shows talent in the new medium.
The central figure of 11-year-old Skunk (Laurence) is a modern-day version of Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, but the film seems equally influenced by the treasured 1980s work of late British director Alan Clarke. A type 1 diabetic, tomboyish Skunk lives in a suburban cul-de-sac with her father Archie (Roth), a sad, sweet-natured attorney whose wife abandoned them; her wannabe-cool brother Jed (Bill Milner); and the family au pair, Kasia (Zana Marjanovic). Friendly and direct, Skunk has a special connection with their neighbors’ slow-witted twenty-something son, Rick (Robert Emms).
In the first of several time-shuffling scenes, Skunk witnesses Rick being savagely beaten by another neighbor, Mr. Oswald (Rory Kinnear), a hotheaded widower raising three thuggish skanks. We subsequently learn that one of his daughters, Susan (Rosalie Kosky-Hensman), was caught with a condom and impulsively suggested that Rick had raped her. While the charges are quickly dropped when it emerges the girl was lying, Rick’s fragile stability has snapped, causing him to retreat into isolation. A later episode with his caring parents (Denis Lawson and Clare Burt) causes him to be institutionalized for treatment.
Much of the action follows familiar rite-of-passage paths. Skunk tags along with her brother around the neighborhood as he fills her with dread about the impending horrors of high school. She embarks on a timid flirtation with a local kid (George Sargeant), hanging out in an abandoned trailer near a car-wreckers yard. She also endures the bullying of the youngest Oswald girl, a terror inappropriately named Sunshine (Martha Bryant). Mostly she observes with perplexity the negotiations of adult life around her. This includes the breakdown of the relationship between Kasia and commitment-shy schoolteacher Mike (Cillian Murphy), on whom Skunk has a crush, and the transfer of Kasia’s affections to her father.
Violence erupts again when promiscuous Susan really does become pregnant and once more points the finger at a guiltless target. But the succession of tragedies this sets in motion becomes too much for the film to sustain.
Overburdened as it is by narrative clutter and climactic melodrama, Broken is always emotionally engaging, never more so than when Laurence is at the center of a scene. She has a sweet, natural screen presence, quirky without being cute. The entire ensemble is solid, with the terrific Kinnear making an especially vivid impression as the neighbor from hell.
Cinematographer Rob Hardy finds odd poetry in the ordinariness of the settings, but the chief tonal assist comes from the beguiling score, which shifts as required between melancholy and whimsical moods.
—The Hollywood Reporter