The Children Are Watching Us

Set among the bleak row houses of Depression-era
Liverpool, Stephen Frears's new film, Liam, is yet another sepia-tinted tale
of a cute, dimpled Catholic boy (played here by Anthony Burrows) whose diet
consists mostly of bread, potatoes, and interminable school sermons that promise
only hellfire and damnation. "What does sin do?" his teacher asks in a typical
lesson, at once stern and somehow excited. "It drives the nails deeper into the
hands of Christ!" She smiles serenely as she offers this warning, and all the
boys stare up at her, too credulous to speak.

The rhetorical Grand Guignol of a strict Catholic-school education has, of
course, provided seriocomic fodder for writers from James Joyce to Frank McCourt;
and Frears and his screenwriter, Jimmy McGovern, do a spirited job of thrusting
us inside the revved-up religious imagination of their little hero. They let us
experience the loopy hyperbole of the schoolmarm's threats from the child's
dumbstruck perspective, and the results are at once funny and disturbing. Mrs.
Abernathy may beam maternally at her charges as she threatens them (Anne Reid
does a pitch-perfect job with this cartoonish part), but her diatribe is in fact
horrible. In a sense, she's damaging them for life.

For all his teacher's pious browbeating, though, Liam appears to be a happy
kid. In the ecstatic opening scenes--which also owe a debt to the
autobiographical films of Terence Davies, another Liverpudlian Catholic--he and
his older sister spy on their parents and friends during a drunken New Year's Eve
party, and Frears makes us feel palpably Liam's excitement, indeed his total
bliss, at seeing his mother (Claire Hackett) and father (Ian Hart) so contented.
Later, the same intense thrill seems to sweep over him when, as a reward for an
errand well run, his mother presents him with a thick slice of bread smeared with
jam, or when he's given the grave responsibility of ringing the school bell to
end recess.

But Liam's life is not just sweet snacks and parties. He also suffers from a
severe stutter; as the film goes on and the adults around him grow increasingly
vociferous, the source of his speech impediment becomes plain. Besides the
moralizing drone of his teacher and priest, the din of political speeches
surrounds him, with Communists and Fascists vying for the allegiance of
Liverpool's poor. And his parents argue more and harder as their financial
situation worsens. The child's stammer makes emotional sense in this context (he
can hardly get a word in edgewise), as it also works to spare us one of those
dreadful when-I-was-a-boy voice-overs that are usually par for the course in such
period pieces. Liam is blessedly mute throughout most of the proceedings, a
super-absorbent sponge to the various passion plays unfolding around him. Like
movie, like hero: The child is as small and sensitive as the film that bears his
name.

All of which is a rather roundabout way of saying that Liam exemplifies
the best of a certain dubious brand of middlebrow cinema. This is the sort of
well-made, thoughtful, basically undemanding melodrama that counts as art in the
speeded-up, dumbed-down American context--though only for a host of negative
reasons. That is, it isn't full of gratuitous blood and gore; the image
doesn't cut away every few seconds; the film wasn't made in Hollywood. At
the same time, though Liam does afford a kind of sentimental satisfaction
(the sight of the tiny child squinting his eyes and pursing his lips as he
strains to speak moved me even on a second viewing) and though we may appreciate
the director's humanism, some viewers are bound to wonder, as I did, if such
conscientious craftsmanship and dutiful yet uninspired attention to character
development are enough to float a so-called serious film. The same viewers are
also likely to wince, as I winced, at the saccharine soundtrack. Frears's
work here looks and sounds an awful lot like De Sica extralite.

Frears and McGovern do in fact have bigger plans for their film. But as soon
as the script ventures beyond the limited bounds of Liam's own tender
perspective, it runs into trouble. When the teenage daughter, Teresa (Megan
Burns), goes to work as a servant in the house of a rich Jewish family, all kinds
of unexpected emotions are stirred up in and around her, and the film begins to
teeter precariously on the edge of anti-Semitic stereotype. Frears has made a
point recently of giving interviews in which he talks about his belated discovery
that he is Jewish, so perhaps the word "anti-Semitic" isn't right; maybe "naive"
better describes his view of the Jews, who are represented in Liam by a
regular Protocols of the Elders of Zion menagerie of landlords and bosses and
pawnbrokers, albeit nice ones. The use of such crook-nosed, well-off stock types
is obviously meant by the filmmakers to demonstrate the pitfalls of prejudice,
but Frears and McGovern don't do a very good job of distinguishing the
characters' questionable tendency to generalize from their own.

The father, meanwhile, loses his work at the shipyard and undergoes a slow but
total transformation from mildmannered family man to frustrated job hunter to
seething scapegoat seeker to enraged Blackshirt. This is not the first time that
Ian Hart has portrayed a 1930s working-class Englishman, hungry for political
answers: He played an Orwell-styled Republican volunteer in Ken Loach's Spanish
Civil War picture Land and Freedom. And once again, in Liam, his doughy
complexion, tight jaw, and gaunt frame suggest the presence of a sort of
ideological tapeworm eating at his insides. He conveys credibly the way a man
like this would travel to such extremes.

For a while, it's possible to imagine the steeper and more sophisticated movie
that Liam might have been if the father's passage from good man to monster
had been explored as something more than a textbook case of the birth of a
Fascist. Hart's coiled performance does at least provide flashes of this other,
mirage-like film, but they fade out just as soon as we glimpse them. Had Frears
managed, for instance, to penetrate more deeply into the little boy's own
perplexed yet loving view of his father's metamorphosis, the film might have
achieved a greater level of psychological complexity and feeling. The yawning,
even uncrossable gap that separates the world of adults from the world of
children is, after all, one of the great themes. Liam's instinctive response to
his parents' problems--paired with our creeping sense of the unwitting ways that
these adults harm their children, even as they're straining to protect
them--should be the real subject of this movie. Though he is too young and
uncomprehending to grasp much of what's going on around him, Liam can't avoid
being traumatized, or at least affected deeply, by all he witnesses.

Yet throughout the film, the boy remains a bit too oblivious to what's going
on, as Frears prefers to let him pass his time looking adorable in a red bow tie
and wondering why his mother has hair down there. In the end, Liam may strike
us as sort of sweet, which is exactly its problem.

If Frears's film is meant to convey the dangerous lure of
ideology, Lukas Moodysson's Together is all about its charms. In this, his second
feature-length movie, the 32-year-old Swedish director adopts a gentle approach
to depicting another politically fraught era. Together is a semicomic and
altogether endearing portrait of a free-loving Stockholm commune in 1975. Like
Frears, Moodysson uses children as his eyes onto this far-off (or, as the case
may be, far-out) scene. Following the lead of the kids themselves--an angry
little boy and a sullen adolescent girl who have fled their abusive, alcoholic
father with their mother to live with their uncle and his hippie friends in a big
house filled with posters of Che Guevera--the audience remains at a skeptical
remove from much of the rhetoric that holds sway in the commune. But like the
children, the audience is also won over slowly--not by the knee-jerk
grandstanding that takes place at the dinner table, but by the warm and often
startling relationships that evolve in the course of the film between the most
unlikely characters.

At first, we may worry that Together is poised to take shape as yet
another snide dressing-down of the idealism of an earlier age. Contemporary
American movies, from Barton Fink to Pleasantville, have prepared us to
expect this sort of cynical, more-enlightened-than-thou way of thinking about
now-unfashionable worldviews. (Or its flip side, a toothlessly apolitical, Big
Chill
-styled nostalgia.) In the early scenes, there is something a touch
snickery about Moodysson's ironic approach to the backdrop. Our first glimpse of
the commune members, for instance, comes as they hear on the radio that Franco
has died. They hug and grin and gush at one another as if they were evangelical
Christians who'd just gotten wind of the Second Coming.

To his credit, though, Moodysson has something at once more complicated and
less dismissive in mind. Together is distinguished throughout by his
overwhelming affection for all of his people--from the radical commune members to
their straitlaced, moralizing neighbors to the abusive husband. And the director
is canny enough to spread his irreverence around in the same generous way that he
does his understanding.

As Elisabeth, the battered wife, starts mimicking the militant feminism of one
of the other commune members and vows to burn her bra and stop shaving her
armpits, it's a bit hard to believe that her new persona will stick in its
radical entirety. She's too fond of things like blue eye-shadow and clingy
polyester sweaters. But Moodysson doesn't write off the subtler, lasting shifts
that this new awareness might mean for such a woman and her life. She also
announces that she's tired of being a housewife and plans to get a job. On this
front, we believe her. The film is about wanting to believe.

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