Reading a synopsis for Broken gives the impression it is yet another gritty, urban, British drama, the sort of film drenched in grey and drizzle. But there’s something special about Broken; a sense of innocent wonder that gilds the film with a magic rarely seen when dealing with contemporary British films.
Skunk (Eloise Laurence), an eleven year old girl suffering from type 1 diabetes, lives on a quiet cul-de-sac in North London with her loving father Archie (Tim Roth), her brother Jed (Bill Milner) and their nanny Kasia (Zana Marjanovic). It’s the summer holiday before Skunk embarks on her first year at secondary school and thankfully Kasia’s boyfriend Mike (Cillian Murphy) is going to be her teacher. But when Skunk witnesses her neighbour Bob Oswald (Rory Kinnear) violently assault mentally disabled Rick (Robert Emms), a chain of events is set in motion that will affect all those living in the neighbourhood.
It sounds heavy-handed, it sounds typical Brit-grit, like a gruelling episode of Brookside. And yet Broken is one of the year’s most affectionate, honest and uplifting films. For while all manner of unpleasant things are going on; accusations of rape, child molestation, bullying and mental breakdowns, it is all seen through the innocent and always endearing eyes of Skunk. Based on the book by Daniel Clay, Broken is reminiscent of Mark Haddon’s novel The Mysterious Case Of The Dog In The Night-Time, there’s a sense that, while serious events are unfolding, everything will be okay because the protagonist believes it.
The film is littered with a wonderfully familiar and familial sense of humour. The interactions between Skunk and her family are laced with a sense of childhood nostalgia, that feeling of siblings fighting but enjoying it, of parents intentionally giving children answers they know they don’t want with a thinly veiled smile. But Broken never loses sight of the issues it addresses; like the scrapyard behind the neighbourhood the problems are always there. Skunk is bullied at school by her neighbour, Mike and Kasia’s relationship soon hits the skids and poor Rick’s mental condition gets progressively worse.
Director Rufus Norris shoots the film with a summer, sun-dappled eye. It takes you back to the long summers of your youth, or at least the ones you want to remember. The scenes in which Skunk and Jed explore the scrapyard are particularly emotive. He’s also not afraid to toy with narrative convention, often showing us the consequence of an action, causing the mind to race to a conclusion as to how it happened, before showing us the cause often to humourous effect. Rarely in Broken are things quite as they seem. Fate, destiny, divine intervention, call it what you will, Broken never fails to take the characters’ lives to unexpected places. Such is the emotional pull of the story that the climax becomes nerve-wracking as the audience hopes that everything will resolve itself. If there is a flaw, it’s that Norris could have left the ending with a bit of ambiguity to it and still had his audience eating out of the palm of his hand.
The natural interactions between characters is testament to Mark O’Rowe’s script but also to an on song cast. Cillian Murphy dispels his sometimes creepy persona as the warm, if flawed, Mike. Rory Kinnear is repugnant as Oswald, even more so than his onscreen children. But it’s nice to see him in a different light after Charlie Brooker’s pig-shagging Prime Minister in Black Mirror. Bill Milner is fast growing up from the cute role he occupied so well in Son Of Rambow to present a much more honest incarnation of a pubescent boy than any quota of American films dare to venture. At once awkward but with enough confidence to want to be cool, he is perhaps underused here but always a welcome screen presence. Tim Roth shows, again, why we need more of him on screen. As Archie he brings an underplayed, overprotective warmth to his fatherly role. The scene in which he tries to avoid Skunk as she begs him for a new phone is so brilliantly accurate you wonder if Roth has not experienced this very thing countless times before. And then there is the breakout role of Skunk herself, played to star-making levels by young Eloise Laurence. Full of life, innocence and wonder, Laurence continually dazzles with naivety mixed with youthful insecurity. Skunk is precocious in her hands, delightfully childish without ever being irritating but rather endearing and genuine.
A dreamy, poetic, loss of innocence story, Broken is anything but.