It's been a decade in the making, premiered a year ago at the Venice and Toronto festivals and concerns itself with events some 70 years in the past. But there is something about Stephen Frears' complex, heartbreaking, beautifully made "Liam" that seems to speak eloquently, painfully to the dilemmas we are facing today, to the terrible price dark times can extort from us all.
Frears, whose credits include "The Grifters" and "My Beautiful Laundrette" and whose last film was the completely opposite "High Fidelity," is the most unpredictable of filmmakers, a director who has followed a self-confessed "utter dread of repeating myself" into the widest variety of situations.
Frears' canvas here is provided by veteran British screenwriter Jimmy McGovern. Based on Joseph McKeown's "The Back Crack Boy," "Liam's" focus couldn't be more specific: the world of 1930s Depression-era Liverpool, in all its baffling richness and cruel perplexity, as seen through the eyes of an inquisitive 7-year-old boy. That would be Liam himself. As played by the debuting Anthony Borrows in one of those remarkable performances young children sometimes give, Liam is defined by opposites: an indomitably optimistic smile and a terrible stutter so incapacitating we can literally see the pain that trying to get words out causes him.
Liam is the youngest in a family that includes older sister Teresa (Megan Burns), even older brother Con (David Hart), his dad (Ian Hart) and his mum (Claire Hackett). They're first glimpsed gathering on New Year's Eve, the parents primping for a night at the pub as the children smile and giggle. It is a moment of genuine warmth among decent people, and the reality of that goodness makes what happens to them and what they become so disturbing.
Dad is a shipyard worker, a man almost defined by the intensity and extent of his pride. He's proud of his skilled position, of being able to support his family though times are already tight and of being a Catholic, although he is aggrieved at the way the sanctimonious hand of Father Ryan (Russell Dixon), the local priest, is always out for "the widow's mite."
Mum, as it turns out, has her pride as well. She is determined that Liam look presentable for his first Communion, no matter what sacrifices need be made, and when Teresa goes to work as a maid, Mum insists, hoping against hope, that no daughter of hers will be cleaning out lavatories.
Teresa's employers turn out to be a wealthy Jewish family, as uncertain as she is about how to act with this strange person of another faith. This delicate dance of competing classes and religions in a city that seems to be multicultural against its will is one of the many things "Liam" is especially good at delineating.
This uncertain equilibrium is destroyed, as is Dad's self-worth, when the shipyard is closed. Inexorably, fatally, the fabric of societal and personal relationships unravels, exposing a network of underlying resentments and prejudices against the Jews, the Irish, whoever's handy. Hard times and adversity, apparently, do not inevitably bring out the best in us. Sometimes, overmatched by harsh, incomprehensible events, decent people fall prey to baser instincts, with savage results.
While all this is happening with his elders, Liam is having a crisis of his own. Regularly traumatized about the filth on his immortal soul by Father Ryan and the equally unrelenting Mrs. Abernathy (Anne Reid) as part of his preparation for his Communion, Liam starts to obsess about the pain of hellfire. (In this amused but horrified re-creation of the rigid, doctrinaire Catholicism of that time and place, "Liam" does a better job of re-creating the ambience of Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes"' than that film did.)
Made by Frears for the BBC because of the director's respect for the British network's tradition of uncompromising, socially conscious films, "Liam" has the luxury of not having to concern itself with anything but dramatic truth, and its ability to balance personal drama with broader points is exceptional.
The acting, of course, is a key component, with the more familiar Hart ("Backbeat," "Land and Freedom," "The End of the Affair") blending so well with the rest of the cast that they won an award for ensemble acting in Venice.
Frears also won an award at that festival, and his sure and seamless touch over a wide spectrum of feelings, his easy blending of the tragic and the optimistic, is quite special. Not only does Frears make honesty, understanding and insight seem easy and inevitable, he wears his craft so casually we hardly notice the deft way he employs it. "Liam" is meant to discomfit us, and it does, but the skill involved can't be other than uplifting.
MPAA rating: R, for some nudity and language. Times guidelines: a glimpse of nudity, seriously adult subject matter.
Ian Hart: Dad
Claire Hackett: Mum
Anne Reid: Mrs. Abernathy
Anthony Borrows: Liam
David Hart: Con
Megan Burns: Teresa
Russell Dixon: Father Ryan
Released by Lions Gate Films. Director Stephen Frears. Producers Colin McKeown, Martin Tempia. Screenplay Jimmy McGovern, based on "The Back Crack Boy" by Joseph McKeown. Cinematographer Andrew Dunn. Editor Kristina Hetherington. Costumes Alexandra Caulfield. Music John Murphy. Production design Stephen Finerant. Art director Hannah Moseley. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
In limited release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times