To hell and back
BBC production Liam paints a hellish portrait of Liverpool during the Depression era
The title character of Liam, a prestigious-looking import from Britain, is a 7-year-old with a stutter so bad that he is sometimes rendered almost mute. He is the youngest kid in a Catholic, working-class family in Liverpool during the Depression of the 1930s, and the world around him has plenty in it to leave the most confident speaker speechless.
Adapted from an autobiographical novel by John McKeown, this BBC production flashes potential as a blue-collar family saga, but pared down to 90 minutes for theatrical distribution, it gravitates alternately toward rite-of-passage tale (Liam’s story) and socio-political screed (the travails of the boy’s parents). Liam’s encounters with the social conflicts of the pre-World War II period make for a sticky sort of pathos, while his parents’ half-articulate stabs at social action serve as wild-eyed takes on the poverty-driven politics of desperation.
Liam’s mother (Claire Hackett) is a proud and combative woman, and his father (Ian Hart) is an embittered and unemployed shipyard worker who commits himself to the British version of blackshirt Fascism. But if poverty plagues Liam’s family (including his sister Teresa, who works as a maid for the wealthy Jews who own the shipyard), Liam himself is more grievously affected by the scarifying instruction in Catholicism he gets at school.
Director Stephen Frears gives the thing the aura of historical realism, but the Catholic-school sequences are overbearing in ways that suggest something more like the stylization of gross caricature. That, combined with the weirdly manipulative music track and the persistently raw critiques of Anglo-Catholic guilt-mongering, sometimes makes Liam into something every bit as hectoring as the culture it condemns.
Anthony Borrows is a touching and memorable incarnation of the title character, but the account of little Liam’s encounters with two kinds of disinformation—that of his own innocence and that of his inflammatory parochial-school education—often pitches over into the excruciating. Liam’s Liverpool is a kind of hell, but the movie itself seems overly eager to thrust the audience into that hell as well.