Thursday, 18 June 2009

Looking For Eric

Ken Loach’s films have a famously troubled distribution history in his native UK. His brand of kitchen sink, politico-realist drama (like compatriot Mike Leigh) is often a tough burp to swallow for Brit audiences keen to lap up the latest Richard Curtis fairytale instead.

What a surprise (and delight) it is then to see his latest, Looking For Eric riding a crest of positive buzz into the nearest multiplex, the perfect home-grown counterpoint to blockbuster explosions and robotic heroes (the latter of which apparently come in CGI form too).

The premise will really rub off on those familiar with Loach’s back-catalogue, for it’s the potent mixture of that familiar kitchen sink with a peculiar kind of magic realism previously untapped in the director’s oeuvre that marks it as both familiar and unexpected. Somewhat ironically it’s kind of a fairytale in its own right but, unlike Richard Curtis’ efforts, has Cinderella’s carriage firmly located in a grey, drab, recognisable Blighty.

Fears that the director has gone commercial or populist are unfounded; Eric is on occasion as gritty as before but there’s a delightful sense of heart-warming redemption waiting at the end of the tunnel. It’s the hook (Eric Cantona himself), not the film, that’s populist. The sucker punch melancholy of Sweet Sixteen this isn’t.

The construction of a story around a footballer who had his day in the mid 90s entwined with that of a main character, Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) who is always looking to the past and sees no hope in his future, feels entirely apt. Beginning en media res as Bishop, a postman, crashes his car, the director’s familiar hallmarks become apparent when we plunge into his home life on the return from hospital. Squalid house; distant stepsons; an estranged first wife followed by another who ran out; a loving daughter who refuses to give up on him. Such scenes (funny, profane, acidic) still ring with a vitality unmatched by most other directors.

It’s through a weed induced haze that Eric’s personal hero, Cantona, first appears, the Frenchman making the leap from footie fan poster to corporeal being. Encouraging Eric to re-forge the bonds with his first wife (a rock n roll teenage sweetheart) and his sons, Cantona is cleverly constructed as a slick, Gallic manifestation of Bishop’s inner thoughts.

Throughout the fleet footed soccer star shows a refreshing ability to mock himself, everything from inept trumpet playing to that infamous seagulls metaphor (‘I’m still getting over that’ Eric moans). However, this is Bishop’s story, not Cantona’s and the whimsical interludes simply add a new wrinkle to the well worn Loach formula: that of a character putting their lives back on track.

Evets in the central role is superb, a rough hewn northern hero, possibly the unlikeliest of 2009. It’s in Evets’, Loach’s and screenwriter Paul Laverty’s confident handling of routine domestic drama that makes Eric’s personal travails so involving; these are character problems everyone can identify with (no perma-tanned Malibu rich brats here, thank you).

Even when the script verges on the overstuffed, cramming in all of the above plus a late developing crime angle, it all somehow steers towards a delightful climax where Eric’s post office buddies take action and are united through their love of Cantona – it would be remiss to say how. Tonally, the film is a complete surprise: never before has a Ken Loach film teased us with, and then culminated in, such fantastical light-hearted charm. It’s a testament to Evets and a brilliant supporting cast (Gerard Kearns, Stephanie Bishop, John Henshaw) that, somehow, their characters are all believable on life's playing field. Ooh arr Cantona indeed.

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