Based on Daniel Clay’s 2008 book of the same name, Broken follows 11 year old tomboy Skunk Cunningham (Eloise Laurence), her lawyer dad Archie (Tim Roth) and her brother Jed (Bill Milner) and their life in a London cul-de-sac. After Skunk witnesses a violent attack carried out by the father of the troublesome Oswald family, it sets a series of events in motion that will change life in the suburban North London close for all involved.
The first thing that struck me about the film was just how well acted it all was. It has genuine, human performances from the seasoned pros like Roth and Cillian Murphy all the way down to the kids. Eloise Laurence is astounding as Skunk. She sidesteps every precocious child actor beartrap possible and delivers a very real feeling character you relate to and care about. There are moments of real warmth and charm in the film that work beautifully and really draw you in to the drama.
Broken takes many of its cues from Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Many of the characters and family dynamics are the same. For instance, Tim Roth plays the moral Atticus character “Archie” and the white trash Ewells are now the equally scummy “Oswalds”. It does a good job of modernising it too. The real strength of the film lies in the relationships. Archie’s relationship with Skunk is very believable and her interactions with Murphy’s teacher Mike are genuinely touching.
What isn’t so great is when the film (and presumably the book) goes off at a right angle to the source novel and all subtlety is abandoned in favour of a thick layer of melodrama. I felt that once the film got rid of Mockingbird’s stabilizers, it became a much shakier prospect. It does fantastic groundwork in making you root for these characters but when it comes to the final act it opts for a batshit smattering of soap-opera level drama which spoils things somewhat. A hackneyed fantasy sequence near the end had me mourning for the deftness of touch displayed in the first half.
First time director Rufus Norris does a great job. He chops and changes between narrative threads with confidence and the result is very engaging. However, there is an overreliance on standard “Brit grit” conventions and the whole thing feels very stagey. No surprise as both Norris and screenwriter Mark O’Rowe have theatrical backgrounds. Not to sell the film short, but I have the feeling Broken would work even better on the stage.
Broken is a well-acted, well directed character piece. The goodwill it earns is only slightly marred by an overdramatic, student film level bleakness towards the end. Recommended.