By IRA ZIMMERMAN, posted to Stutt-x, September 25, 2001
Liam is portrayed by film newcomer Anthony Borrows who portrays a stutter so severe that I wished that the film company had hired a Speech Language Pathologist consultant to assure that this child actor's real speech patterns was not adversely affected by this film's role.
"Liam" tells the story of a seven-year-old boy growing up in Liverpool, England in the depression years of the 30. As seen through the eyes of seven year old Liam, he must prepare to make his First Catholic Communion in a rigid Catholic School environment. He must deal with his family's poverty where his Dad loses his job when the local shipyard closes and the family must rely on the income from the family's oldest son and teenage daughter. It isn't long before Liam's Dad begins to look for scapegoats for his troubles. And there are some easy targets around him such as the Irish immigrants and the Jews who closed the shipyard and employs his daughter, his Jewish Landlord who wants his rent, and the Jewish Pawnbroker who buys the family trinkets. The Dad soon finds comfort and a sense of community with a group of Fascists which ultimately leads to a family tragedy.
While these socio-economic issues are very difficult to watch unfold, I know first hand about Liam's desperate struggle to express himself. Although I was pleasantly surprised that no matter how difficult it was for Liam to express himself in Catholic School, his school mates didn't make fun of his stutter. It might also seem strange to others to see Liam speak normally when alone. But then the next moment have great difficulty expressing himself when talking to another person. Although in one funny instance Liam's delayed speech benefited him in receiving more money than he really wanted. And there are some other rare moments of humor associated with Liam's stuttering. But it is done tastefully
It would be unfair for me not to note the criticism of the film from the Catholic League whose research analyst Louis Giovino previewed the film. Giovino wrote that "Of interest to the Catholic League is the dreary tale of Liam's experience preparing for First Communion. All Liam learns in school is just how filthy children's souls are. He learns this from his teachers, as well as from the parish priest. The priest, a quintessential bully, bombards the kids with horrific sermons on Hell, effectively bestowing them with fear and guilt."
The Catholic League's review concludes, "All the familiar anti-Catholic stereotypes are there: the Catholic Church exists solely to torment young children, is sexually repressive, etc. Indeed, the film is so over the top that Giovino concludes it is unfair to say that it is a one-dimensional portrait of Catholicism. No, it is a cruel caricature that has been deliberately crafted.."
On a more positive note, I have rarely seen Childhood stuttering so accurately portrayed in a film. You can attribute that to the fact that the screenwriter, Jimmy McGovern, knows first hand about the pain of being a child who stuttered. McGovern was one. McGovern is best known for his successful British Television series, "Cracker" where he has tried to put a stutterer in the scripts that he writes. "Liam" was a ten year labor of love for McGovern who said that "...I have never written anything so deeply felt and personal."
While this is a difficult film to watch, it is worth your time and effort..
By KENNETH TURAN, Times Film Critic
Frears, whose credits include "The Grifters" and "My Beautiful Laundrette" and whose last film was the completely opposite "High Fidelity," is the most unpredictable of filmmakers, a director who has followed a self-confessed "utter dread of repeating myself" into the widest variety of situations.
Frears' canvas here is provided by veteran British screenwriter Jimmy McGovern. Based on Joseph McKeown's "The Back Crack Boy," "Liam's" focus couldn't be more specific: the world of 1930s Depression-era Liverpool, in all its baffling richness and cruel perplexity, as seen through the eyes of an inquisitive 7-year-old boy.
That would be Liam himself. As played by the debuting Anthony Borrows in one of those remarkable performances young children sometimes give, Liam is defined by opposites: an indomitably optimistic smile and a terrible stutter so incapacitating we can literally see the pain that trying to get words out causes him.
Liam is the youngest in a family that includes older sister Teresa (Megan Burns), even older brother Con (David Hart), his dad (Ian Hart) and his mum (Claire Hackett). They're first glimpsed gathering on New Year's Eve, the parents primping for a night at the pub as the children smile and giggle. It is a moment of genuine warmth among decent people, and the reality of that goodness makes what happens to them and what they become so disturbing.
Dad is a shipyard worker, a man almost defined by the intensity and extent of his pride. He's proud of his skilled position, of being able to support his family though times are already tight and of being a Catholic, although he is aggrieved at the way the sanctimonious hand of Father Ryan (Russell Dixon), the local priest, is always out for "the widow's mite."
Mum, as it turns out, has her pride as well. She is determined that Liam look presentable for his first Communion, no matter what sacrifices need be made, and when Teresa goes to work as a maid, Mum insists, hoping against hope, that no daughter of hers will be cleaning out lavatories.
Teresa's employers turn out to be a wealthy Jewish family, as uncertain as she is about how to act with this strange person of another faith. This delicate dance of competing classes and religions in a city that seems to be multicultural against its will is one of the many things "Liam" is especially good at delineating.
This uncertain equilibrium is destroyed, as is Dad's self-worth, when the shipyard is closed. Inexorably, fatally, the fabric of societal and personal relationships unravels, exposing a network of underlying resentments and prejudices against the Jews, the Irish, whoever's handy. Hard times and adversity, apparently, do not inevitably bring out the best in us. Sometimes, overmatched by harsh, incomprehensible events, decent people fall prey to baser instincts, with savage results.
While all this is happening with his elders, Liam is having a crisis of his own. Regularly traumatized about the filth on his immortal soul by Father Ryan and the equally unrelenting Mrs. Abernathy (Anne Reid) as part of his preparation for his Communion, Liam starts to obsess about the pain of hellfire. (In this amused but horrified re-creation of the rigid, doctrinaire Catholicism of that time and place, "Liam" does a better job of re-creating the ambience of Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes"' than that film did.)
Made by Frears for the BBC because of the director's respect for the British network's tradition of uncompromising, socially conscious films, "Liam" has the luxury of not having to concern itself with anything but dramatic truth, and its ability to balance personal drama with broader points is exceptional.
The acting, of course, is a key component, with the more familiar Hart ("Backbeat," "Land and Freedom," "The End of the Affair") blending so well with the rest of the cast that they won an award for ensemble acting in Venice.
Frears also won an award at that festival, and his sure and seamless touch over a wide spectrum of feelings, his easy blending of the tragic and the optimistic, is quite special. Not only does Frears make honesty, understanding and insight seem easy and inevitable, he wears his craft so casually we hardly notice the deft way he employs it. "Liam" is meant to discomfit us, and it does, but the skill involved can't be other than uplifting.
MPAA rating: R, for some nudity and language. Times guidelines: a glimpse of nudity, seriously adult subject matter.
This small gem of a film aims at depicting a case of classic poverty in the Great Depression. It shows how a family who would otherwise had led a fruitful and happy life is thrown into abject misery after the father and sole breadwinner loses his job. It also shows what misery does to people and the fateful mistakes that it makes them commit, as they are struggling to retain their dignity in impossible circumstances.
The sociological analysis implicit throughout the film never gets in the way, however, thanks in large part to the superlative cast. Of particular note : Ian Hart, as Liam's father, who proves once more that he is one of the important British actors of his generation, and the 7-year old Anthony Borrows whose naturalness in taking directions (one can hardly talk of acting at that age!) is stupendous.
LIAM is a film demanding of its audience. For one, it is essentially visual as it means to show the adult world as seen by a young boy - Liam - whose soul is full of ideas, impressions and desires, but who is prevented from expressing them in words because of a serious speech impediment. As a result, and while there is a rich and subtle dialogue, much of the film's substance is, in fact, conveyed in pictures requiring constant attention. LIAM is a film that rewards repeated viewings.
LIAM is also demanding because, dealing with a particular time and place - the slums of Liverpool where, about a decade later, the future Beatles would be born -, it presupposes that the viewer will be more familiar with the local circumstances than is actually the case with most of us. I picked up a few topical references, but I am sure that I missed many others. Of particular importance to make sense of a key scene is the knowledge of the fact that stutterers are fluent when they sing.
Finally, some will find it hard to watch such a sad story. Sad, it certainly is, but not relentlessly so. To begin with, Frears has a keen sense of the small pleasures of life and there are a number of scenes (e.g. the afternoon at the movies and its joyful aftermath) where he celebrates them. More importantly, there is the intelligence and inner strength that emanate from Liam's eyes, and, while watching him in the final scene, earnestly combing his sister's hair, one gets a sense that, somehow, in spite of the cards stacked against him, the brave little boy will not only survive but thrive and live to tell his story - perhaps as a film director.
As Mrs.Cooper used to say in THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, "children are strong, they abide and they endure" and they are the hope of the world, points magnificently driven home in LIAM.
Having said this, LIAM could also be a better film.
As is, it suffers from two main weaknesses.
Firstly, the screen-play lays it a bit thick on the Catholic Church, traditional Irish style. Undisputably, all that you see and hear is a true testimony on the stern messages that that Church used to preach to its flock, complete with terroristic sermons meant to make the faithful feel personally responsible for the sufferings of Christ on the cross and frightening metaphors of the everlastingness of the eternal punishment that awaits sinners in hell. The point is well taken, and perhaps could bear some limited repetition, to give us a sense of how such notions were unceasingly hammered into the Irish mind, but by the seventh or eight time around, the critical view has turned into an all-out attack which has turned into a caricature. Now, a caricature is an object of fun and ridicule, and, with Anne Reid and Russell Dixon hamming it up as the schoolmistress and the priest like a pair of merry buffoons, we are in for some famous entertainment! Admittedly, the story is gloomy enough that we may have use for some comic relief. At the same time, however, the most precious qualities of the film, its seriousness and its objectivity, the NON-JUDGMENTAL value of its examination of the human condition, are badly compromised.
Secondly, the film's approach of the issue of antisemitism is curiously problematic. Liam's dad becomes a fascist because he is convinced that "the Jews" own the world and run everything in it - therefore, they must be responsible for his misery. I am sure that Frears and McGovern disagree with that view, and yet it so happens that, in their film, ALL of the characters who own property and thus hold the key to the economic survival of the others are Jewish - as if to confirm the contentions of fascism! Truly there was not need to make the landowner a Jew in addition to the pawnbroker and the industrialist, or to make the latter the owner of the selfsame factory where Liam's dad was laid off. Also, generally speaking, and in spite of some nice touches, the Jewish characters remain sketchy and abstract, except for the pawnbroker, whose distress at the sight of his shop burned down by the black shirts is sure to break your heart - a fine piece of body-language acting on the part of Arnold Brown.