The temptation to add “...Britain” to the title of this tale of violent, dysfunctional families in the classic “ordinary street in an ordinary town” is tempting. But at heart, the debut feature-length film by acclaimed theatre and opera director Rufus Norris is an attempt to do something a little more ambitious than simply string together a compendium of tabloid scare stories.

The fact that it eventually descends into melodrama is a shame because on the way there are some beautifully observed scenes that capture the many dilemmas both of being a child and a parent, acted out by a top-notch cast – of whom the standout performer is the 11-year-old Eloise Laurence.

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She plays Skunk, a bright but lonely girl who lives with her solicitor dad Archie (Tim Roth), a harassed small-time solicitor; elder brother Jed (Son of Rambow’s Bill Milner); and the au pair Kasia (Zana Marjanovic), who’s become a surrogate parent since their mother left.

They live in a tiny close in a north London/Home Counties suburb that initially seems like any other. But the peace is shattered in a brutal opening scene where one of their neighbours, Bob Oswald (Rory Kinnear) beats up Rick (Robert Emms), the eccentric, reclusive son of Mr and Mrs Buckley, an older couple who live across the road.

One of Bob’s daughters has accused Rick of raping her – and the fact that the accusation turns out to be a lie blurted out in a moment of panic does absolutely nothing to defuse the toxic atmosphere that builds between the three families when Archie attempts to have a quiet word on Mr Buckley’s behalf.

The attack lingers in Skunk’s mind, adding to the problems of her impending start at secondary school. To make matters worse, Kasia is involved in a troubled relationship with Mike (Cillian Murphy) Skunk’s soon-to-be-English teacher. And Skunk has a crush on Dillon (George Sergeant) a permanently shell-suited kid from the other side of the shopping precinct, with a spectacularly inept repertoire of BMX moves.

Everybody keeping up at the back? Unfortunately, Norris (whose only previous film was the well-regarded and wonderfully-named short King Bastard) seems intent on cramming as many stories as possible into a far too short running time. A longer, more leisured film (or a spin-off TV series, as worked so well for Shane Meadows’s This Is England) would have given some interesting characters more breathing space to develop.

As it is, a film that’s teetered on the edge of melodrama from the start finally decides to dive in head first, with enough emotional cliffhangers to fill eight Eastenders Christmas specials. As well as ticking all the contemporary Britain isshoos boxes (bullying, teenage pregnancy, a paedophile witch-hunt) it offers up secret affairs, murder, abduction and a medical emergency (did I mention that Skunk has Type 1 diabetes and needs to be constantly monitored in case she slips into a coma?) Add to that a somewhat cliched depiction of the Oswalds as the token chippy, thuggish (and most "working-class") family on the estate and by the time a surreal and somewhat overdone final sequence comes around you’re likely to feel weary, confused – and more than a little manipulated.

But underneath the sound and fury is a subtle, poignant and often very funny take on growing up – a process, the film makes, clear, which often needs to go on long after we’ve become “adults”. O’Rowe, adapting Daniel Clay’s novel, has an excellent ear for the paranoias and rituals of the ‘tween years and Norris (ably assisted by cinematographer Rob Hardy) captures the defining interior details of the protagonists’ houses, the bustling other-worldly chaos of a secondary school and the mundane magic of the secret dens in the nearby countryside with the assurance of a far-more experienced long-form filmmaker.

And he coaxes uniformly excellent performances from his cast. Laurence is a natural, by turns charming, infuriating, funny and loving – a totally believable 11-year-old, in fact. Roth, in his first British film for 10 years, dials down the hyperactive charisma of Reservoir Dogs et al to create a rounded, low-key portrayal of a decent Everyman, slightly worn out and confused by the business of life but utterly committed to doing his best for his children. Murphy is charm personified as the dreamy but good-hearted permanent adolescent Mike, who becomes a second father to Skunk, making the pain when his flaws become apparent doubly hard to bear.

Kinnear (a theatre veteran and M’s besuited apparatchik in Skyfall) is scarily convincing cast against type as Bob, a widower as devoted to his daughters as any of the parents in the neighbourhood but prone to tackling every problem with threats and fists. And Denis Lawson and Clare Burt are quietly moving as the Buckleys, coming to terms far too late with the fact that their son, far from simply being quiet and “different”, has serious mental health issues...

At its best, the film recalls Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a clear influence on the source novel, and a rare example of a great book turned into a great movie. While never scaling those heights, Broken is, at its best, a moving and resonant exploration of childrens’ desire to find their true place in the world and parents’ elemental, unending devotion to them.

Reviewed on: 06 Mar 2013
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A young girl’s life changes when she witnesses a brutal attack.
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Director: Rufus Norris

Writer: Mark O’Rowe

Starring: Eloise Laurence, Tim Roth, Cillian Murphy, Robert Emms, Zana Marjanovic, George Sergeant, Denis Lawson, Clare Burt

Year: 2012

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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