Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Unloved (2009) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jeff Robson
Given that Samantha Morton’s most acclaimed acting performances have tended to come in challenging, downbeat films – and given her equally impressive track record as a social campaigner – it’s no great surprise that her directorial debut was neither an exploding helicopter thriller nor a fluffy Richard Curtis-style romcom.
The Unloved, screened on Channel 4 last year and now receiving a cinema release, is firmly in the ‘gritty British realism’ genre, inspired by her own experiences in a children’s home in Nottingham but clearly influenced by directors such as Ken Loach and Lynne Ramsay (who made the bleakly beautiful Ratcatcher and directed Morton in Morvern Callar).
It tells the story of Lucy (Molly Windsor) an 11-year-old girl whose parents have separated and who lives with her father (Robert Carlyle). In a harrowing opening scene we see the aftermath and prelude to a beating after she loses his cigarette money on a trip to the shops. She tells her school teacher about the incident and it becomes clear she is ‘known to social services’. Eventually she is taken to a residential children’s home nearby. There she meets Lauren (Lauren Socha), a rebellious but good-hearted older girl. The staff and children provide a surrogate family. But she is still willing to forgive her father and desperate to live with her mother (Susan Lynch). And she soon becomes aware that the one of the home’s workers is taking advantage of Lauren’s vulnerability and low self-esteem to force her to have sex with him.
The story of Lucy’s attempt to find some happiness and a degree of ‘normality’ in her life is frequently a gruelling watch and offers no easy answers. Films such as this are often accused of ‘wallowing in misery’. But as long as children like Lucy exist (and a set of statistics before the end credits shows just how many there are) then I feel that, sadly, there’s an urgent need to remind cinema audiences that the basic securities and pleasures of childhood most people take for granted are, for some, an impossible dream.
Morton does show that even in such grim circumstances there can be moments of pleasure in the simplest of things – visiting a funfair, trying on makeup for the first time. She also creates some striking images of beauty from the desolate landscape of Nottingham’s more rundown areas.
But this is set against a backdrop of a social services system stretched to breaking point by trying to deal with a mountain of cases where every child’s problem requires more time and resources than it can spare. Writer Grisoni (a TV and cinema veteran whose most notable recent credit was Red Riding, and who developed the screenplay from Morton’s original story) paints an all-too believable picture of a rigid system where Lucy is too often treated as a problem to be dealt with and categorised, rather than a lonely and desperately unhappy little girl.
Without being strident or looking for scapegoats, the film shares Loach’s slow-burning anger at a society which allows such things to happen and, interestingly, it also has his interest in the power of religion (particularly in Raining Stones, one of his finest works) to at least offer hope of some alternative to a bleak reality.
Some of Morton’s symbolism is a little overdone (a faun in a churchyard, lamplit images of Our Lady). The narrative meanders in places and some of the supporting characters are a little underdeveloped, but generally she creates a striking and inventive piece of work that many more experienced directors would give their right arms for. And she coaxes universally impressive performances from her cast.
Windsor and Socha, both spotted via local auditions, are excellent, catching the girls’ combination of enforced maturity and childish innocence perfectly. Carlyle (whose breakthrough role was in Loach’s Riff-Raff) and Lynch are equally effective as parents who basically love their daughter but are so inadequate as to be dangerous. And there’s an excellent supporting turn from Craig Parkinson (who played Tony Wilson in the Joy division biopic Control, where Morton starred as Ian Curtis’ wife) as Ben, the home worker whose matey persona masks a sinister reality. Not a Friday night feel-gooder by any stretch, and its low-key, largely understated aesthetic means its natural home probably was as a TV drama. But if you missed it and want to see an example of powerful, committed British cinema, then seek it out. And both Morton the director and Windsor the actress will be names to watch in the future.Reviewed on: 17 Feb 2010