The big buzz word in film culture these days is memory. Nothing is more prized than a movie which attempts to render the tricky flow of an individual's memories, dramatising how such recollected images interact with the outside world and the present moment.
Yet memories are like opinions and certain bodily parts: everyone has them. Memory, in its baldest, most banal sense, is not necessarily a political or poetic construct. Yet filmmakers persist in giving us weighty, fragmentary, self-conscious memory-pieces, as if this very posture guaranteed the highest pinnacle of cinema art.
Most memory films come loaded with the usual baggage: contrived flashback imagery (the bleached, distorted, slow-motion stuff refilmed from Super 8) and ponderous voice-over narration. How refreshing it is, then, to find a film about the past which suggests a process of remembering without once making a big deal about it.
Stephen Frears' Liam is one of the most surprising and remarkable films of recent years. Set amidst the Irish Catholic community of Liverpool in the 1930s, it tells the story of an increasingly divided family.
Dad (Ian Hart) loses his job and drifts into a flirtation with fascist ideology; teenage daughter Teresa (Megan Burns) hides her Catholic background in order to work as a maid in a Jewish household; Mam (Claire Hackett) struggles valiantly to hold everyone's dignity intact.
At the centre of most scenes is tiny Liam (Anthony Borrows). Like the hero of Nadia Tass' Amy (1998), Liam has a speech problem that can sometimes only be resolved by recourse to song – particularly when under the stressful gaze of adults, as in a priceless scene set in a church confessional.
Liam's inner, imaginative life is stoked by all kinds of apparitions, from the hellfire evoked by teachers and priests to the glimpse of his naked mother, so shockingly different from the nudes he spies in art history books.
Much of Liam depends on this boy's cuteness, and the absolutely winning performance by Borrows. But the cuteness is also a ruse. As the story becomes progressively darker, the superb script by Jimmy McGovern (TV's Cracker) starts to dismantle our conventional, generic expectations of a happy ending for all. By the end, the most disparate elements of the story are combined into a powerful confluence.
Frears is a wildly eclectic and uneven director. The path from My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) to High Fidelity (2000) via Hero (1992) and The Van (1996) is neither straight nor coherent. Frears takes pride in being a workman filmmaker rather than an auteur, taking on the challenge of every genre and style available to him.
Some years ago, Frears penned a fond tribute to Alexander MacKendrick, director of Ealing comedies and The Sweet Smell of Success (1959), extolling his ability to exploit all the resources of staging and timing to create expressive drama and comedy. Frears affirmed his deep identification with MacKendrick's very practical, technical brand of film craft.
Frankly, the MacKendrick influence on Frears has always seemed rather invisible to me – that is, until Liam. This is a film where every high or low angle, every claustrophobic grouping of characters in the frame, every slight movement left or right to emphasise a person or object is significant and evocative.
Like MacKendrick, Frears unobtrusively creates little, visual 'diagrams' that beam themselves into the unconscious minds of viewers, establishing the complex relationships between the characters and showing the directions in which these relationships evolve or devolve.
Frears mixes the MacKendrick influence with an even less likely one: Sergio Leone. Many moments in Liam, and its generally golden colour scheme, recall the chronicle of city childhood contained in Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984) – and John Murphy's score, with its frequent echoes of Ennio Morricone, perhaps underlines this model a little too obviously and emphatically.
Liam covers a lot of ground, and follows many threads, in a swift, economical way. This, too, is part of its understated memory texture. It allows itself the freedom of a mosaic: sometimes it indulges low humour, at others it insists on historical and political context. The pain and joy of family life is always in the foreground, filtering all this material.
Ultimately, the brilliance and force of Frears' and McGovern's achievement is in the way it embodies another fine filmmaking and storytelling principle of MacKendrick's: as Frears put it, "his great talent lay in not separating comedy from drama".
© Adrian Martin August 2001