Breaks under its bleakness, but Skunk still shines

Theatre director Rufus Norris borrows from the tropes of classic kitchen sink melodramas for his ambitious debut, a film so relentlessly grey and grim that it could only ever be British.

As in Harper Lee’s visionary coming-of-age novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Broken projects an image of a woebegone society through naïve eyes. Played with astonishing poignancy by newcomer Laurence, our protagonist is the cheerfully named Skunk, a cheery and inquisitive eleven-year-old girl whose wide-eyed worldview is eradicated one day when she returns home from school to witness her belligerent neighbour Bob (Kinnear) assaulting mentally-challenged Rick (Emms), who is falsely accused of raping Bob’s lying, malevolent daughter. In turmoil, Skunk turns to her older brother Jed (Milner), live-in au pair Kasia (Marjanovic), kind schoolteacher Mike (Murphy) and doting father Archie (Roth) for solace. Unbeknownst to her, this is only the start of what will be a life-changing and unremittingly traumatic summer.

Set almost entirely behind the three closed doors of this small cul-de-sac, Norris and screenwriter Mark O’Rowe are blithe voyeurs, looking through the keyholes of a contemporary British society without giving us much in the way of reflexive social commentary. Instead of providing an authenticated, perhaps more neutered presentation of London suburbia, the constant lashings of disquieting drama make Broken look and feel like a particularly depressing feature-length soap opera. 

Adapted from Daniel Clay’s novel, the twisty plot is exhaustively adapted for the screen, and at such a breakneck pace that performances and small character nuances are left underdeveloped, culminating in a clichéd dream sequence that attempts to suggest narrative equilibrium, but falls short of mawkish contrivance.

The one beacon of light in all this darkness is Skunk’s blossoming relationship with Dillon (fellow newbie George Sargeant), a young vagabond who longs to whisk her away to sunny Florida. Achieving a goofy, but moving first-love chemistry, their performances together give this black-hearted film a beating heart, and legs to their schmaltzy, Disney-fied pipedreams. After all, anything is better than ‘Broken Britain’. 

Broken (15)

Dir: Rufus Norris; UK drama, 2012, 91 mins; Eloise Laurence, Cillian Murphy, Tim Roth, Rory Kinnear, Bill Milner, Zana Marjanovic, Robert Emms

Premiered July 11

Playing nationwide