Stars: ** 1/2
Rating: R for violence
Run Time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Stephen Frears hop-scotches from hipster-romance (“High Fidelity”) to abject poverty in a well-crafted but repetitive tale of Liverpool’s Irish Catholic community in 1930s Britain.
And a bleak society it is. Between wars and on the verge of a depression, England is struggling with political confusion and tense social expression. On the home front, religion is the driving force. Seven-year-old Liam (Anthony Burrows) spends his days at school, a nasty stutter betraying his fear of the cold, eternal-hell-threatening Catholic priest and his unyielding schoolmaster. His less fortunate siblings are expected to help fill the family coffers - elder brother Con (David Hart) by working the shipyards and sister Teresa (Megan Burns) as a housekeeper for a wealthy Jewish family. Liam’s father (Ian Hart) makes ends meet by toiling at the Liverpool docks, while mom tends the homestead, attempting to preserve the love and light of the family circle.
The Depression has its way with the unfortunates. Dad loses his job, and his foolish pride prevents him from relying on the local parish for support. Teresa is unwillingly caught up in the secrecy of her employer’s adulterous affair, and finds herself in the uncomfortable position of being her family’s sole breadwinner. Dad, looking to cast the blame for his bad lot, joins the local Fascist Party. His black-shirted status renders him dark and bitter and, caught up in a maelstrom of angry propagandizing, he endangers the very family he’s trying to protect – his own.
I confess to the blahs when it comes to Irish/English on-the-dole stories. “Angela’s Ashes”, “Billy Elliot”, “Distant Voices, Still Lives” – the poverty, the hypocrisy of Catholicism, and religious damnation for those who don’t conform seem cyclic and monotonous. I can be had, however, for a stalwart line of brick row houses or the jolly camaraderie of the local pub. Frears utilizes his considerable directorial strengths to wring strong, convincing performances from his actors, in particular the sweet, observant Burrows. Socially conscious but lacking in real compassion – let’s give the genre a well-earned rest.