I went in to Broken with little expectation and no real idea of the plot; I hadn’t heard either way whether it was good, though I had heard the words ‘rape’ and daughter used in something of succession so my slight assumptions of the story were somewhat skewed. I was constantly expecting the worst to happen throughout, eying every character off as a suspect, as someone to be wary of; I was paranoid throughout the picture in the same way that modern parents have to be every second of every day. In a way I feel that this is exactly how the film should be approached, even though it is seemingly not the way that director Rufus Norris intended us to view his otherwise utterly charming debut.
Broken is a film about rape, but it’s also a rowdy romp; it’s devastating and whimsical in equal parts. It achieves this spasm of tones because it is something of an ensemble piece, ala the Robert Altman moves of the seventies; though that is not to say that each single story doesn’t sway from and away darkness during the films run. The film is set in and around an indistinct court of middle-class houses at the end of an anonymous English street and focuses on the families that reside inside these three suburban shelters, showing us the brilliantly interconnected tapestry of tales that occur there over the space of a tragic and tumultuous time.
These are all tales of children, sex and most predominantly parenting, in both its highs and lows. Tim Roth plays an aloof, acerbic and lighthearted lawyer whose daughter Skunk (Elouise Laurence, in a child performance at least as good as that in Beasts of the Southern Wild) is at the center of the film’s many revolving plots. She is a sly adventurous sort and along with her brother and strange Pikey friend she gets up to all of the realistic mischief that one would expect from an early Shane Meadows movie. These quaint little capers are exaggerated somewhat by Norris’ almost stylized direction, though never enough to wreck the realism. He includes little touches in the music ques and sight gags in the back and foreground that leave the film feeling like it were the product of a child’s imagination, like maybe Skunk is re-telling the tale to a friend.
On the whole Rufus’ direction is impressively daring, taking big risks (the film opens with a dreamy, rhythmical montage of Roth sitting by a sleeping Skunk’s side as a baby, as a girl and her as a woman alone; a technique subtly utilized throughout to stunning effect) and reaping the benefits almost every single time. The film occasionally skips over dramatic events and then flashes back briefly to fill us in on exactly what occurred and these rewinds felt like a forced flourish; they didn’t add anything to the film since the stories they showed were exactly what one would expect to see given the A and B that we were given on either side. This though is only a slight issue in what is otherwise a wonderfully weaved together series of scenes.
Though it is a very charismatic comedy with a lot of very loveable characters at its core this film also has a darker side (as you would expect from writer Mark O’Rowe, of Boy A fame), one that is there from the very beginning, one that almost justifies my prior mentioned paranoia. All is not well in the two houses surrounding Skunk’s: on one side lives another single father, one not as well off as Roth financially and familially, his trio of daughters constantly causing trouble; on the other lives Rick, a developmentally disabled youth portrayed powerfully by Robert Emms and his petrified parents. The three constantly twirl and clash with each other as they attempt to go about their own lives and the end result of all these conflicts is tellingly tragic.
The worst part about watching all of these dramas develop is the way in which no-one is really to blame, in fact they all act quite sensibly considering the circumstances of the situation. When the film uses its rewind to reveal these hidden motivations the mechanism works and the first time is the best example of this. Everyone means well but still, sometimes bad things just happen in a society, sometimes people just clash without thinking and there are always consequences to this. This seems to be the films main statement, its purpose as purported by Skunk when she sorrowfully asks here father “Why do only bad things happen?”, a question that it tempers terrifically with that aforementioned charm.
Yes, bad things happen and sometimes there is nothing that we can do to stop them, the trickling of consequences so intricate and convoluted that we mere mortals could never predict it. Sometimes though good things happen to, often when we don’t plan for them to, when we least expect it. For me Broken was one of those good things; a cleverly constructed piece of cinema that managed to evoke real emotions from every side of the spectrum. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll understand why it is we still stick around this dump after all these years. In its own small way Broken is the kind of film that makes life worthwhile (try seeing it with small expectations now!)