Liverpool, the 1930s, at the height of the Depression. Seven-year-old Liam Sullivan (Anthony Borrows) lives with his parents (Ian Hart and Claire Hackett), and older brother Con (David Hart) and sister Teresa (Megan Burns). His father, Tom, is laid off at the local dockyard; meanwhile, Teresa finds a housemaid’s job with a well-off Jewish family, the Samuels. Tom finds it difficult to find work, and an experience with a Jewish loan-collector causes him to come under the influence of a local group of Moseleyite fascists. Meanwhile, Liam is being prepared for his first Holy Communion…
Stephen Frears worked for most of the 1970s for the BBC, and since his cinema directing career revived in the mid 1980s has alternated “smaller” films like this one with work in Hollywood. Liam was made for the BBC (with funding from German and Italian television). Although it received big-screen exposure at festivals and a limited cinema release, it is a film most at home on the small screen. Liam is certainly very well crafted, but if it has an “auteur” then that person is the screenwriter, Jimmy McGovern, who even shares the “a film by” credit with Frears. Many of McGovern’s trademarks are here, as with his earlier film Priest (which Antonia Bird directed, equally well, and equally self-effacingly – and when is that film going to have a DVD release?). We have the Liverpool setting (a period one, this time), and a full-throttle assault on the Catholic church, or more specifically Catholic hypocrisy. McGovern’s screenplay is scrupulously constructed – perhaps a little too much so, in retrospect. Fire symbolism runs through the film, from the hellfire sermons of Liam’s teacher (Anne Reid) and priest, and this theme builds up to a horrifying climax. Even Liam’s speech impediment (made worse by the frightening sermons) turns out to have a plot function. It’s very neatly done, but a little too neat, once you see how the pattern falls into place.
Although this is a writer’s film rather than a director’s one, Frears does his usual solidly professional job. Frears and DP Andrew Dunn use a muted colour scheme, all greens and browns (with a lighter, more pastel look for the scenes in the Samuels’ house). And it’s a commendably economical film, over and done with in a brisk hour and a half. The cast are all excellent, but if the film belongs to anyone, it belongs to the two youngsters, Anthony Borrows and Megan Burns. The ending, although it’s certainly not subtle (as I’ve indicated above), still has quite some impact.
Artificial Eye’s DVD conforms to most of their earlier releases: fine picture quality, decent sound, and basic extras. The picture is in the ratio of 1.85:1, and there’s nothing vital wrong with it: good colours (though this is deliberately not the most colourful of films), strong blacks and shadow detail: note the scene in Chapter 11 that’s lit only by the candle that Liam is carrying.
The soundtrack is Dolby Surround, though to be honest this is basically a mono track with some ambience added. Even John Murphy’s piano-based score confines itself to the centre channel. It’s quite clear and well recorded, as you should expect, but anyone looking for a disc to show off their sound systems should look elsewhere. There are twenty chapter stops. There are no subtitles of any kind, which is bad news for anyone likely to struggle with occasionally strong Scouse accents.
The extras comprise a trailer (in anamorphic 16:9, and running 1:48), and filmographies for Frears, McGovern, Ian Hart, Claire Hackett, Anthony Borrows and Megan Burns. The packaging refers to production notes, which presumably refers to a quote from Frears about the script at the beginning of his filmography.
Liam is a good solid well-made film that you won’t regret watching, though I’m as yet unsure how it will stand up to repeated viewings. Artificial Eye’s DVD is up to their usual standards.