Director Stephen Frears’ Liam covers territory covered before, perhaps most notably in Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives. Both deal with growing up poor in Liverpool, albeit in different decades. And both films utilize a rather darkly colored, chiaroscuro look. But where Davies took a somewhat impressionistic viewpoint, looking back through the haze of later memory, Frears frames Liam with a powerful in-the-moment clarity, seen from the point of view of the eponymous character, a seven-year-old boy with a pronounced speech hesitation.
Liam (Anthony Borrows) is a gentle soul who soothes his harried Mum (Claire Hackett) by lovingly combing her hair. He’s an innocent, at that age where unfiltered knowledge is pouring in about all sorts of things, particularly sex and religion, but understanding has yet to be reached. Chancing to see his mother in her bath, he is deeply confused by the difference he notes between her body and those seen in the reproductions of nude figures from great paintings circulated amongst the boys at school.
His teacher at school, in calculated collusion with the overfed pasty-faced priest, preaches hellfire and brimstone, though on a one-to-one basis she shows some real caring for her young student, whose first communion is a pivotal element of the film. "Sin, filth, and stench," the teacher repeats to the kids, but confession will wipe the slate clean.
Though Liam is the lens through which this family history is told, the film is an ensemble piece which creates rich characterizations of Mum, Dad (Ian Hart), and sister Teresa (Megan Burns) as well. Set during the Depression, unemployment is high, families are on the dole, and money is tight under the best of circumstances. Mum struggles to budget for the rent and to clothe and feed her family. When Dad’s factory closes down, he is unable to get work, and the only money coming in is from his eldest son and from Teresa, who works as a domestic in a wealthy Jewish household. Dad’s frustration at being unable to support his family, and his resulting loss of pride, find an outlet in ugly anti-Semitism and he joins up with the fascist Blackshirts. It isn’t pretty, but Frears, working from a script by Jimmy McGovern (Priest), makes it understandable. Under extreme circumstances, good people do bad things.
Liam packs a wealth of imagery and incident into its ninety minute running time. Liam watches his Dad shaving during the main titles. New Year’s Eve at the pub, where songs, smokes, and pints provide some solace for the poor. Mum and Dad argue at the family dinner table, while the kids wince with discomfort. Liam is sent to the pawnbroker’s, where his speech hesitation stops him from naming the price that Mum specified, while a neighbor woman shames the moneylender into a higher amount. Liam’s hands are cruelly strapped–not once, but twice–at school, for being late.
There’s not a bad performance in the lot, but it is young Borrows who steals the heart away. He may be innocent, but he is not foolish; his big eyes see all, hungrily absorbing and trying to make sense of this confusing adult world around him. A knitting of the brow, a glint in the eye, a gentle grin–Frears catches Burrows in a range of expression that would be remarkable in a classically trained veteran, no less in a neophyte child. And while Borrows steals the heart, Megan Burns’ quiet and gentle Teresa will break it.
Frears uses some hand-held camera takes for energetic, jumpy effect. He also uses extreme close-ups, sometimes exaggerating characters’ faces almost to caricature, which works since that may well be what these people look like to Liam. There is notably dramatic lighting, effectively heightening the drama. None of these effects, however, are used to excess.
On the other hand, despite a deliberate graininess of texture, the overall design of the film seems somewhat romanticized–streets without a trace of litter, for example. The "look" lacks a real grittiness, somewhat at odds with the incidents and emotions so well achieved on screen. John Murphy’s score, too, is old-fashioned and sentimental; its banality is at odds with the genuineness of the drama.
Parts of Liam may seem familiar or predictable or even contrived, but Frears and his cast have nonetheless imbued the whole with immediacy and emotion that render the material fresh once again.