To borrow a line from my review of last year's heartbreaking film, The Hunt (Jagten), sometimes children lie. Sometimes they are simple, instinctive lies; sometimes they are calculated as an easy escape from a truth that may have dark consequences and sometimes lives are broken as a result.
When 11-year old Skunk (Eloise Laurence in her film debut) witnesses a swift but brutal attack in the quiet avenue where she lives, a series of violent events, both physical and emotional, ensues that has a devastating impact on three families.
The three families, each dysfunctional in their own ways, would not ordinarily have anything in common and would not be drawn to one another, but we see them confined in a small cul-de-sac like trapped, wild animals thrown into the same cage and each missing some of the essentials for an equanimous life. In a strange way, this could be a suburban take on Life of Pi with a young girl trying to make sense of a mad world. The tragedy is circumstance, but that's no excuse for the way some of the neighbours enact their lives, escalating lies and compounding mistakes.
But though all sounds bleak, Broken is occasionally beautiful, frequently touching and often funny and, again, it is all these things because it is so real. Watching Skunk and her brother, Jed (Bill Milner, Will from Son of Rambow), wrestling, clipping clothes pegs to each other and hanging out in their camp, brings back memories of childhood when the world seemed against us but there was always an escape to a bright, fantasy existence.
The humour comes not from cheesy asides or self-conscious jokes but from delightfully extraneous happenings on the periphery: the crashing descent of a car in a breakers yard, a boy dancing alone in a car park and a pair of twins with poo in a slingshot
That director Rufus Norris (another debut) has paid such care to the incidentals makes Broken a more complete film.
His choice of music is fantastically inelegant. Forget the whimsy of Rachel Portman (Chocolat) or the rousing scores of John Williams (do you really need me to tell you?), what carries Broken is close to the demo tune on a 1980s Cassio keyboard with Rolf Harris twanging along on a Jew's harp. And if that isn't sufficient to lighten the mood, as characters on the screen struggle to make sense of the dark craziness of life, along pops a song to celebrate the bizarre madness of it and we are permitted to laugh as the singer intones 'One day when I'm really old, and my hair falls out, I'll stick it back with the spoon of the marmalade that you made
' It's rare that I mention the editing but Victoria Boydell has sensitively cut a story to match the patterns of our minds. Occasionally we jump forwards by minutes as if reading an exciting novel, our eyes sprinting ahead until our brain slows us down, then seamlessly we step back to see in everything fully and in order.
Norris has cast Broken faultlessly. The star name upon which it's sold is Tim Roth as Archie, Skunk's dad, a single parent who is the calm, reasonable father in the middle of a minor battlefield. It's unfathomable, watching him here, that he isn't a bigger star. Archie is clearly a man with great pressure in an unenviable situation but he doesn't simply make the best of it, he endeavours to make it the best it can be. It is a wonderful, understated performance that I suspect few will see.
Laurence is a revelation and the emotional fullness with which she inhabits Skunk allows us to root for her and silently admonish her, because she could easily be the girl next door.
There isn't a poor performance in Broken, only characters you care for and those from whom you'd run a mile. Rory Kinnear (son of Roy) as Bob, gives us a man who is, on the face of it, the neighbor from hell with a trio of daughters to match but he's no two-dimensional villain, rather a damaged man with his own daemons he is unable to cope with. In contrast, Kasia (Zana Marjanovich), the friend who lives with Archie as a cross between friend, auntie and surrogate mother, brings a gentle, caring irreverence in the midst of the turmoil but she, too, has her 'edge.' Robert Emms, so often an invisible supporting actor, is breath-drawingly good as the mentally ill, victimized Rick who struggles to cope with the various warzones into which he is cast. He is the hate-figure of Bob and his daughters, the cause of weariness and frustration in his parents (superb turns from Dennis Lawson & Clare Burt) and, more than anything, the terrifying confusion in his mind. His character evolution is superb and our own feelings towards him are as confused as his own.
Once the credits had rolled, I sat in silence and reflected on how life runs away from us and we are subject to its whims. Sometimes we emerge the beneficiaries, sometimes the victims. Perhaps this is simple karma; perhaps it is fatalism. Or maybe everything is random or even the result of misunderstandings and the inability of mere humans to communicate their feelings openly, simply and honestly.
Broken asks the questions but leaves us to draw our own conclusions.
Sometimes 'broken' may be repaired. But not always.
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