Lezli-An Barrett’s “Business as Usual” (selected theaters, rated PG for adult themes) is as no-nonsense as its title, an unsparing and vital account of what it’s like to be working-class in Mrs. Thatcher’s England.
Barrett, in a knockout feature debut, makes a blunt, straight-on approach work as effectively as the more stylized strategies of Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi in “My Beautiful Laundrette.” For all the bleakness of its vision of a society living increasingly on the dole, “Business as Usual” crackles with humor as well as anger. It is stirring in its confidence in the indomitability of the human spirit.
That indomitability is represented by Glenda Jackson’s Babs Flynn, the manager of a Liverpool dress shop who discovers resources within herself she never realized she had. For three years she’s watched her husband Kieran (John Thaw), a once-prominent labor negotiator, languish in unemployment while she’s become the breadwinner. She and her husband share their shabby Victorian townhouse with her father, her three sons as well as one of the son’s girlfriends and their child.
Babs’ troubles start when she politely but firmly insists that the area manager (Eamon Boland) of the chain to which the shop belongs stop making sexual advances to one of the clerks (“Mona Lisa’s” Cathy Tyson). In short order, the indignant man fires Babs whom, in any event, he thinks unsuitable for the chain’s new upscale image. Persuaded that she has nothing to lose, Babs reluctantly decides to fight back and take her cause to the local union headquarters. In no time, the media makes Babs’ fight for reinstatement and the picketing of the shop into a national event.
Inspired by an actual incident and drawing upon her own working-class background, Barrett handles the escalating furor surrounding Babs with superb control. She allows us to see in it a cross section of a society being crushed beneath endless economic hardships and massive governmental indifference.
It’s amazing how much ground Barrett covers without seeming preachy or digressive as she touches upon racism, police brutality and ingrained anti-labor policies as well as sexual harassment. Barrett overreaches only--and by no means fatally--when she cooks up an improbable rekindled romance between a glamorous TV reporter (Mel Martin) and the worn-down, prematurely aged Kieran.
Jackson’s crisp, warm portrayal of Babs, complete with Liverpudlian accent, typifies the excellence of all the film’s performances from its very large cast. Special mention must be made of Tyson, who conveys so well the predicament of the clerk who cannot afford to quit the job she has come to hate.
Clearly, Lezli-An Barrett is a talent to be reckoned with.