by Ira Zimmerman and Kenneth Turan

By IRA ZIMMERMAN, posted to Stutt-x, September 25, 2001

By KENNETH TURAN, Times Film Critic

added February 20, 2002

by Pierre Bellemare

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.

added March 17, 2002, with permission