The British ‘Broken’ isn’t at all until the very end
Director: Rufus Norris
Stars: Eloise Lawrence, Tim Roth
3 (out of 5) Globes
The tricky tone wielded by the British film “Broken” is established in the opening minutes. A precocious young girl named Skunk (Eloise Lawrence), who lives in a suburban cul-de-sac in North London, idly chats with an awkward-seeming young neighbor, Rick (Robert Emms), as he feebly washes a car. Another neighbor, Bob (Rory Kinnear), suddenly storms over to him and, without announcement and for no discernible reason, beats him to a bloody pulp. The scene is played as deadpan comedy, but the violence is terrifyingly real — arguably too real for a film that has already inundated the viewer with a wacky score. The moment is unwieldy, questionable and, more importantly, makes one sit up and take notice.
The material is mostly character-driven and free of anything too momentous — at least till the final stretch. Skunk lives with her divorced, adoring father (Tim Roth). Her au pair (Zana Marjanovic) is dating a man who becomes her English teacher (Cillian Murphy), who seems nice, but soon reveals deep reservoirs of anger. Her neighbors are another story. Bob is an angry widower whose teenage daughter more than once falsely accuses grown-ups of rape. Rick is one of these victims, but he’s actually unwell, psychologically, a fact his parents, with whom he lives, refuse to acknowledge.
“Broken” is director Rufus Norris’ first film, adapted by Mark O’Rowe (“Intermission,” “Boy A”) from a novel by Daniel Clay. In a way, it’s a show-off real. Norris isn’t a flashy director in the manner of a Michael Bay, but one obsessed with strange details and character quirks, without becoming “quirky.” It’s closer to the work of Arnaud Desplechin, whose films (“Kings and Queen,” “A Christmas Tale”) are stuffed silly with asides and tonal shifts.
For most of its length, “Broken” is content to simply trail the characters through their lives, and indulge in a wobbly tone that tries to balance a deadpan, absurdist tone with a real darkness. Norris likes to periodically tip the scales, just to throw us off. Sometimes this means fits of violence (though one beating set to ostentatiously goofy music goes too far). But sometimes it means sudden fits of unexpected emotion. In scenes with Roth, who when he sees Skunk tends to remember her birth and imagine her (hoped-for) adulthood, this jaunty film abruptly makes room for a profound and affecting melancholy. But the overall tone is one of detached bemusement. Perhaps it seems too good to be true that a detail like Skunk’s diabetes is handled matter-of-factly. It is: The final fifteen minutes find the film collapsing into a ridiculous, hysterical, miserable mess. Even there, though, this is a film that’s deeper than it might sometimes seem.