Directed by the versatile and perceptive Stephen Frears, "Liam" is a refreshingly modest, yet very affecting look at the bleak life of struggling class Catholics in 1930s Liverpool, as seen through the eyes of a 7-year-old boy.
Similar in setting, circumstance, atmosphere and sooty sense of humor to 1999's Irish poverty yarn "Angela's Ashes," but more a depiction of simple hardship than abject misery (no dying siblings or shoes resoled with old bicycle tires), the focus of the film is sweetly mischievous little Liam (Anthony Burrows). He's a cheerful, cherubic lad turned shy and quiet because of a wicked stuttering problem and the frightful reprimands of domineering Catholic school teachers who spend much more time browbeating the children with ominous dogma than they do exercising the three Rs.
"Your soul is filthy!" his harridan of a schoolmarm barks. "Sin drives the nails deeper into the hands of Christ!" bellows his ruddy zealot of a priest, who also comes knocking on the family's door every payday to requisition a cut of father's wages for the coffer.
Father (Ian Hart, "End of the Affair," "Backbeat") works in the steel mill -- until it's closed down, leaving the family to depend on Liam's dock-worker teenage brother (David Hart) and Teresa (Megan Burns), his 13-year-old sister who cleans house for a wealthy Jewish family, much to her parents' shame.
Frears is a director who seems able to spin gold in any genre from noir ("The Grifters") to aristocratic 18th Century sexual politics ("Dangerous Liaisons") to live-broadcast TV drama ("Fail Safe") to guy-centric rock'n'roll romantic comedy ("High Fidelity"). But his connection to "Liam" feels personal, as if he poured his heart into every frame.
The whole film is touched by the perspective of its diminutive hero, to the extent that most scenes are shot from a subtly lower angle. You feel the closeness of Liam's family, even as his father's crushed pride leads him into the fold of an angry anti-Semitic, anti-Irish militant movement, significantly unsettling the household. You want to protect the boy from his tyrannical teacher and preacher, and to smirk at his precocious rebellion against them -- as when Liam deliberately stuffs his mouth with little fistfuls of bread before his first communion (it's been drummed into him that he must go in with an empty stomach).
And you feel especially for the sister, who in addition to coping with puberty, is caught in the middle on several fronts. She brings home leftovers from the Jewish family's table, only to be berated by her proud mother (who soon changes her tune). In addition to cleaning and cooking, she's impelled to abet the wife's extra-marital affair. Finally, she becomes tragically linked to her father's growing rage of intolerance when he leads a mob attack on her employer's home.
The freckled, bobbed and innocently beautiful young Megan Burns delivers an instinctively warm and moving performance in this role, as Teresa is torn between her volatile real family and the welcoming, outward stability she finds in the compassionate household where she works. She won a much-deserved award at last year's Venice Film Festival for her efforts.
But even with strong turns by the adult actors (Ian Hart and Claire Hackett are intense but loving parents), this picture's emphatic joy and grief wouldn't have the same potency without Frears' discovery of little Anthony Burrows. With almost no dialogue at all (thanks to his character's sheepishness about his speech impediment) this inherently talented child effortlessly imparts Liam's buoyant heart, fretful soul and keen, curious mind -- not to mention his ingenuous, unwavering admiration for his troubled father and loyalty to his kin.
Frears does run into narrative trouble from time to time -- the big brother is conspicuous and inexplicably regulated to background status and the specifics of the between-wars, socio-economic strife may confuse those unfamiliar with British history.
But even when the emotionally manifold script (by Jimmy McGovern, "Priest") missteps slightly or the story gets to feeling too familiar, "Liam" never comes off as if it's regurgitating cobblestone and brick tenement clichés. Frears' dedication to the project comes shining through.
Run time: 90 mins
In Theaters: Tuesday 23rd January 2001
Distributed by: Lions Gate Films
Production compaines: British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Road Movies Filmproduktion, Liam Films
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 70%
Fresh: 54 Rotten: 23
IMDB: 7.0 / 10
Director: Stephen Frears
Also starring: Megan Burns