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Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Down and out in Liverpool


Rating: * * * *
Director: Stephen Frears
Running time: 91 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

"Life on earth is terrible, sinful, hurtful. You just don't know it yet." So said a priest in my Catholic school, and his words came roaring back to me while I watched "Liam," a movie that demonstrates exactly how this statement works. Directed by Stephen Frears ("High Fidelity") and written by Jimmy McGovern ("Go Now"), "Liam" is a slice of British Catholic childhood in Liverpool on the brink of World War II. The city is plagued by unemployment, fascism beckons like a seductive drug, suspicion and racism fester. Such is the backdrop of the life of 7-year-old Liam Sullivan, who senses these are unhappy times but doesn't yet realize how bad they could get.

News photo
Anthony Borrows and Ian Hart in "Liam"

British childhood as depicted in fiction and film never seems to have the factor of privileged joy that often defines the same product in America, which is probably a reflection of the childhood experiences of the storytellers. Frears has said that he was drawn to McGovern's screenplay because it reminded him so much of his own childhood. McGovern, whose early days were also much like Liam's, traces the fate of a small child stuck among helpless and tortured grownups but also describes the defense mechanism that kicks in, allowing him to temporarily lose himself in a fantasy world. Sadly, reality cuts through his imaginations with a resounding thud, and he is forced to reckon with the world once more.

Liverpool schoolboy Anthony Borrows was handpicked to play Liam, and he does such incredible things with the role it's hard to believe this is his first time in front of a camera. Thirteen-year-old Megan Burns plays his sister Teresa, and for this, she won an award at the Venice Film Festival. "Liam" is defined by its children, and their pluck, humor, outlook on life keep the story from becoming too depressing to contemplate. It's a huge burden for small shoulders, but Borrows and Burns are up to the task throughout. In the last 10 minutes, however, the story plummets to such an awful ending that you might loathe the director for what he put them through.

Liam lives with older brother Con (David Hart), sister Teresa, Mum (Claire Hackett) and Dad (Ian Hart) in Liverpool. It's the late '30s and times are tough but at least Dad has work and Mum can put food on the table, three times a day. Liam is a reasonably happy child but suffers from a speech impediment that no one is interested in fixing. Whenever he's upset or nervous, the most he can manage is an incoherent stutter, and this enrages his long-suffering Mum, who is apt to deal with it by yelling or smacking him.

Only Teresa understands and has the patience to listen to Liam. When Dad's factory closes down, Teresa is sent out to work as a daily maid. Deprived of her presence, Liam becomes lost in reveries of hell-fires, the Lord Jesus and what naked women look like. His fantasies are influenced by the catechisms and the stories of sin drummed in by his schoolteacher Mrs. Abernathy (Anne Reid). Liam is also scheduled for first communion soon, and the descriptions of hell are repeated by the town priest Father Ryan (Russell Dixon), who visits the school often to spread the fear of being burned alive for eternity.

Liam is perplexed and worried. Will his curiosity for naked women result in eternal punishment? Will he able to face the communion ceremony, or will the host placed upon his tongue burn him alive?

While Liam ruminates, his parents make a speedy descent into despair. Dad tries everything to get another job, even going into debt so as to buy the employment middleman a drink at the pub. Mum is contemptuous of his lack of pride and upbraids him for picking up cigarette butts on the street.

But with only Con and Teresa to bring in money, mealtimes begin to consist of bread and tea and not much else. Mum pawns their clothes and Dad chafes at the way the pawnbrokers, moneylenders and factory owners of Liverpool are all Jewish. On top of everything, Father Ryan comes around once a week to collect for the church. Something has got to break and it does -- Dad joins the fascists and starts terrorist activities against the Jews. What he doesn't consider is the proximity of his targets to his own family.

The lack of options for Liam and Teresa is heart-rending. Everywhere they turn, the adult world threatens to squash them like bugs, either with fears of damnation in an afterlife or fears of destitution in this one.

Children cannot choose their parents, their religion or their fate -- "Liam" reminds us of this bitter truth with eloquent clarity.

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