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A piece of theatre on screen

Broken, the cinematographic debut by Rufus Norris, British theatre director best known for his acclaimed stage adaptation of Festen, has just been released in the UK and Irish cinemas. It is a picture of extraordinary expressive power and touching beauty, an excellent example of theatrical thinking in the medium of film.

A multilayered story of three families living in a North London cul-de-sac, Broken was adapted by Irish screenwriter Mark O’Rowe from Daniel Clay‘s novel under the same title. The plot revolves around the emotional life of a 12 years-old Emily, known in the family circles as Skunk. Witness of a violent attack in the neighbourhood, this charming, smart and sensitive girl lives the difficult process of initiation into adulthood. The topic of loss of innocence develops on the background of complex interpersonal relations within the community. The innate need for acceptance, friendship and physical proximity contrasts sharply with cruel and primitive attitudes which, ironically, result from a misconstrued idea of love.

Although extremely dense and complex in psychological terms, the movie demonstrates great structural coherence, being a perfect realisation of the classical rule of three unities, once obligatory in dramatic writing: the script follows one main thread with few subplots (unity of action), it covers a very limited physical space (unity of place) and the story develops over a relatively short period, in a virtually unbroken sequence of events (unity of time).

As an experienced theatre professional, Norris knew how to maintain correct proportions of dramatic elements, never succumbing to the lure of a simplified, unilateral vision of the world. The claustrophobic setting of a suburban housing estate enabled him to show a human being as it actually is – in all its imperfection, vulnerability and confusion in the face of life. Consequently, Mr. Oswald, – a single father with aggression issues – is not just a common thug but a confused parent trying to protect his family from the alleged danger, while his daughter, a compulsive liar who causes all the havoc in the community, however seemingly monstrous, is a product of erroneous upbringing. Although the subject matter could not be more serious, the film was seasoned with a generous dose of humor – several truly amusing characters which inhabit this small suburban world not only relieve the dramatic tension but also add special flavour and charm to the story.

All at once, Broken touches on various issues of extreme importance: process of growing up, parental love and responsibility, moral downfall, clash between the individual and the society. No doubt it may seem overwhelming, Norris is skillful enough, though, to weave all those threads into the tale without seeming overly loquacious. This film is as dense as the reality in which we happen to live. It doesn’t simplify, filter or smooth anything. And that is why it is so profoundly convincing and engaging.

The newbie in the acting profession, Eloise Laurence starring Skunk is an invaluable asset to the movie. Outstandingly expressive but nonetheless subtle, this young actress’s role as a girl on the verge of social and sexual maturity cannot be overpraised. Tim Roth in his role of Archie – Skunks’ dedicated, loving and sensible father – is an absolute pleasure to watch. Robert Emms as Rick Buckley, the slow-witted scapegoat of the community, and Rory Kinnear as Mr. Oswald, a short-fused widower raising three female bullies, could not do any better either. Yet, no one in this movie is a star, or perhaps everybody is, as under the careful guidance of Rufus Norris all the cast perform splendidly.

The film ends in a truly theatrical fashion. As in a Greek tragedy, plenty of blood is shed, however – due to the ancient rule of decorum – no details of violence are revealed to the audience. Nevertheless, the final scene of a renewed life brings hope. The effect is cathartic, accentuated by the beguiling musical score from Damon Albarn’s Electric Wave Bureau outfit.

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