English Ails

Be forewarned: Liam is not for the sensitive, especially right now

Oct 10, 2001 at 4:00 am
It's generally considered a violation of the unwritten code of film criticism to reveal anything that happens more than halfway into a movie, let alone near the end. Entire flame wars have been waged over the Internet over the slightest of spoilers, even when they involve something as minor as providing the name of the newest bounty hunter in the next Star Wars film. But these are unusual circumstances, and anyone attending Stephen Frears' new film, Liam, this weekend should really be forewarned. If you think you're a hardy sort and want to be shocked, skip this paragraph now. It seems only decent, however, to warn the rest of you that Liam culminates in a terrorist's Molotov cocktail setting a child ablaze and the burned body being carried out in the aftermath. Most of us have had our fill of that sort of thing for the moment.

Admittedly, it isn't meant to be exactly a crowd-pleasing moment in context, but the shock now carries a new level of horror that director Frears and screenwriter Jimmy McGovern (who loosely adapted the script from a novel called The Back Crack Boy by Joseph McKeown) could not have intended. Fortunately, there's also a running theme of tolerance for all races and creeds, though perhaps that wouldn't include the strict Catholic Church of 70 years ago. The film is set in 1930s Liverpool and follows the travails of a Catholic family struggling with poverty, religious tensions and the coming of war.

At the center of it all is Liam (Anthony Borrows), an adorable, stuttering 8-year-old who looks as if he left infancy behind only yesterday. The film milks his cuteness for all it's worth, whether he's shown singing a song to avoid getting his words trapped by that dreadful stammer of his or wielding an oversized school bell to sound the end of recess. The film makes up for those cute moments, however, by making everything around Liam seem perfectly horrible. Angela's Ashes seems almost like Wet Hot American Summer by comparison.

Liam is part of a household of five. Older brother Con (David Hart) works an unspecified job that leads to resentment once Dad (Ian Hart) loses his own source of income at the shipyard. Sister Teresa (Megan Burns) cleans house for a rich Jewish family but feels obliged to pretend that she, too, is Jewish. Mam (Claire Hackett) tries to hold everything together in the meantime, keeping the landlord and the local priest at bay (the church demands tithes for an unemployment fund, even though most Catholic men are too proud to draw from it).

Meanwhile, Liam attends Catholic school, where he is terrorized by the maniacally single-minded Mrs. Abernathy (an excellent Anne Reid), who recites the phrase "You'll burn forever in the fires of hell" as a mantra between beatings with a leather strap and vaguely religious quizzes. "Can anyone tell me what sin does, apart from smearing your beautiful white soul with filth?" she asks at one point, only to be eventually answered by the local priest (Russell Dixon), who replies, "It drives the nails deeper into the hands of Christ." It's one helluva trip to lay on an 8-year-old, especially one who has a starving and belligerent family to begin with.

Frears has yet to direct a bad film, and this one, for all its moroseness, is no different. The details are exactly right: From the smoke-filled pubs posted with signs reading "Not licensed for singing or dancing" to the impressive period cityscape of Liverpool at night, he has created an utterly believable world. It's not all gloom and doom either, with plenty of humor to be had at the expense of the archaic Catholic education system (children are instructed not to eat before Communion because "we don't want the body of Christ sloshin' around with bits o' toast!") and even the often tense religious rivalries (a scene in which women from opposite sides try to outsing one another with political songs).

Still, the dark tone of the ending is amply foreshadowed and designed to leave a bad taste in one's mouth, a goal it certainly succeeds at. Though the film came out a year ago in the U.K., the timing here is unfortunate, and one has to wish that, like so many bigger productions, Liam could have migrated to a more distant release date.