Stephen Frears’ movies are always worth seeing. They’re not always worth remembering—Mary Reilly, where Julia Roberts moped around Victorian London as the conflicted parlor maid to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was a howling dud. But Frears is an adventurous director who seems to consciously avoid making the same kind of film twice, and his credits show an impressive range: My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, Hero, The Grifters, The Snapper, High Fidelity, and even George Clooney’s live TV remake of Fail-Safe.
Frears’ new movie is Liam, about an Irish family living in Liverpool during the 1930s. Dad (Ian Hart) works at the local shipyard, his oldest son Con (David Hart) has a steady job, and daughter Teresa (Megan Burns) lands a position as chambermaid to the wealthy Jewish family that owns the shipyard, and Mum (Claire Hackett) is preparing seven-year-old Liam (Anthony Borrows) for his First Communion.
When Dad loses his job at the shipyard, the family begins a sickening slide out of the fragile comforts of the lower middle class. Con becomes the family’s chief breadwinner, with even the adolescent Teresa bringing home more money (and table scraps and hand-me-down clothes) than Dad.
Haunting the yards looking for piecework, seething in his chair at home, growing ever more sullen and resentful, Dad becomes easy prey for the braying street-corner Fascists blaming their troubles on foreigners and Jews.
It’s left to Mum to try to hold the family together, and she fixates on Liam’s coming Communion, counting on the ritual to allow the family to put its best foot forward, and on the Church to hold the family together.
Frears and writer Jimmy McGovern give us the story from Liam’s point of view, and in doing so they venture directly into Angela’s Ashes territory. The story—the fecklessness of Irish manhood while their women hold the world together, growing worn and bitter in the process—goes back further than that, of course, all the way to Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. But the child’s-eye-view angle is what invites comparison with Frank McCourt’s memoir of his wretched childhood.
Liam differs from Angela’s Ashes, book and movie, in one important respect. What McGovern and Frears give us is the seven-year-old Liam’s perspective rather than that of the grown-up Liam looking back on his childhood. As a result, McGovern’s script is—deliberately but frustratingly—episodic and incomplete. We catch only oblique glimpses of what is happening with others in the family, yet the details of Liam’s Catholic education loom large, with his teacher (Anne Reid) and the priest (Russell Dixon) hammering the fear of hellfire into them with sadomasochistic relish. (These schoolhouse scenes are at once appalling and grimly funny.)
The perspective McGovern’s script adopts has a distancing effect on the characters. Figuratively speaking, we have to lean forward in our seats to understand them, and the plain truth is that they seem hardly worth the trouble. We’ve seen characters like these before, usually drawn more vividly and memorably than McGovern presents them here. His characters, in fact, wander uncomfortably close to clichés and stereotypes, something that is only underlined by the film’s lunge into melodrama in its final minutes.
Within the shopworn limits of McGovern’s script, Frears and his actors make the most of things. Ian Hart and Claire Hackett as the parents are understated and believable, which is fortunate since their characters are by far the most trite and hackneyed in the whole film. Frears gets even more interesting performances from his two newcomers, Megan Burns as Teresa and Anthony Borrows as Liam. Young Borrows especially is a remarkable presence as the timid, stuttering Liam; he looks like Spanky McFarland from the old Our Gang comedies, but more solemn, with portents of panic in his eyes as he tries to comprehend what he sees and hears of this life as well as the next.