By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist May 18, 2012 at 8:00AM
There is a difference between a kitchen sink drama and a drama that includes everything but the kitchen sink, and unfortunately for "Broken," it's more of the latter than the former. Marking the feature debut by theater director Rufus Norris and with Tim Roth, Cillian Murphy and Rory Kinnear among the ensemble, this is the kind of movie that mistakes adding a new plot twist every fifteen minutes for narrative momentum and drama.
The story revolves around three families who occupy a cul-de-sac that could be Anywhere In England. In one house we have the young 11 year-old diabetic Skunk (Eloise Laurence) who lives with her brother Jed (Bill Milner) and her stepmom Kasia (Zana Marjanovic), who is dating Mike (Murphy). But stopping by most evenings is Archie (Roth), who maintains a close relationship with his ex, Kasia. Why this familial relationship needs to be this complicated is not quite clear. To the family's right are the Buckleys (Clare Burt and Denis Lawson) who care for their mentally challenged son Rick (Robert Emms). Meanwhile to the left are the white trash Oswalds, led by the violent head of the household (Kinnear), who is still reeling from the death of his wife as he cares for Sunrise, Saskia and the promiscuous Susan, his three unruly daughters. And in case you haven't guessed, Somehow All Their Lives Will Become Connected. Sigh.
The film starts with Mr. Oswald coldcocking Rick after finding a condom among his daughter's possession. Oswald gets the idea in his head that Rick raped Susan and flies into a rage that leads to Susan making up a story just to calm him down. The truth quickly comes out, but the Buckleys refuse to press charges for the simple fact they're terrified of Mr. Oswald. Meanwhile, Skunk is facing many changes in her life. Soon on her way to junior high, she begins hanging out with her first boyfriend and tries to understand the complicated relationship beween her stepmom, her father and Mike (who also will wind up teaching Skunk at her new school -- this movie sure does like to make sure that every character is only separated by a few degrees from everyone else).
As you might guess, there is a lot that happens in this film, but none it works particularly well. Tonally, the film is all over the place, ranging from heavy drama to broad comedy, and while that in theory could work in the hands of the right director, Norris doesn't have the nuance or subtlety to pull it off. When the film calls for Serious Moments, the actors all pitch their performances to the people in the back of the theater, with yelling being the calling card for drama. Thus, when the movie shifts to lighter scenes, the transition is jarring, oftentimes with scenes feeling like they were pulled out of a different movie entirely. But worst of all, this is exactly the kind of movie where you can ballpark what happens to everybody by the end. But that doesn't mean there aren't a few surprises, even if they feel cheap and manipulative.
Based on the book by Daniel Clay, it's not clear if the source material is this shoddy, or simply the screenwriting, but esentially, the script backs itself into a corner. With everyone's actions coming home to roost in the last third of the picture, it seems like the story doesn't know where to go, and the writers aren't smart enough or don't care enough to find a way out. So what do they do? Well, blood starts to flow and characters begin to exit the picture in a hurry. We suppose this fits with the jarring nature of the narrative overall, but none of it is earned. We're asked to care about some of these myriad characters, only to see many of them dispatched, and because its so foreseeable, it only emphasizes how lazy the screenplay feels. The few surprises that are there feel like cheapshots rather than well earned twists naturally built out of what we've seen unfold.
If there's any silver lining to "Broken," it's the performance of Laurence, who shines and delivers both laughs and heartache in the film. She's a young actress who already shows a tremendously winning presence and personality in front of the camera, and she brings much needed life to a movie that is largely missing it. As for the rest of the cast, they are mostly wasted in one-dimensional roles that don't provide much growth. "Broken" simply can't get it together on any level, delivering a tedious drama, that for all the characters and over-emoting, doesn't have much to say. [D]
"Broken" opened the Critic's Week sidebar of the Cannes Film Festival yesterday.