Rufus Norris’s second feature has recently ended a relatively successful festival run, having garnered Best Film and Best Supporting Actor at the British Independent Film Awards. It’s a film that ticks all the awards boxes: a winning juvenile turn (by Eloise Laurence), hard-hitting drama, broken homes, dysfunctional relationships, unfortunate deaths. However, to suggest that Broken is mere BIFA bait would be reductive.
It’s a solid film. Norris’s direction is sure-footed, the pacing good, the script decent, and the acting excellent, particularly from newcomer Laurence, who gives the damaged 11-year-old Skunk a vulnerable yet resilient air. Tim Roth plays her worried, stressed-out but adoring father well, Zana Marjanović is believable as the live-in au pair, and Cillian Murphy is hugely sympathetic as the puppyish lover of the latter, and one of Skunk’s teachers and friends.
Broken features no bad or evil characters, only damaged ones. The primary ‘antagonist’, an ostensibly vile, preternaturally violent neighbour (a terrifying Rory Kinnear), becomes increasingly fleshed-out, and therefore sympathetic, as the film progresses. Prima facie, his narrative might seem like a ‘bad person’ who gains ‘redemption’ by the end; however, despite his massive flaws, he does not particularly improve over the course of the film. He wasn’t all bad to start off with, and he’s no angel at the denouement, despite saving Skunk’s life. He is, like all the film’s characters, a flawed and damaged person trying to cope with a difficult environment.
Most criticism of the film has been focused on its hyperbolism, its cynical pessimism and its heavy-handedness; adjectives have included “miserable”, “lurid”, “dead-end” and “feel-bad”. This is unfair. Norris’s theatrical background is definitely noticeable, there might be a shade too much violence, and some of the dialogue is a little trite, but the ending is hopeful, and Laurence’s performance is subtle, sweet, and – dare I say it? – life-affirming. More humour would not have gone amiss, but there were laughs to be had, and the characters were well-drawn and -realised. The music, by Electric Wave Bureau, provides a great atmosphere to much of the on-screen action, and some of Rob Hardy’s cinematography is simply lovely.
For all its flaws, Broken is a poignant portrait of a damaged cul-de-sac, featuring well-acted characters and dramatic – perhaps overly so – interactions between them. More can be expected from Rufus Norris in the future, and Eloise Laurence should, if there’s any justice, become a little star.