Los Angeles Times film reviewer Kenneth Turan wryly observed that Liam, director Stephen Frears’s British film about an Irish family in 1930s Liverpool, “does a better job of re-creating the ambience of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes than that film did.” Avoiding the dramatic and visual monotony that makes Alan Parker’s 1999 film of Angela’s Ashes such an unrelievedly dreary experience, Liam brims over with the roiling passions and variegated colors of childhood memory.
The titular protagonist, Liam Sullivan, is a seven-year-old boy played with almost miraculous authenticity, intelligence, and sensitivity by Anthony Borrows, an angelic-looking newcomer discovered by the filmmakers on their casting search through Liverpool schools.
Perversely, the Venice Film Festival gave its 2000 Marcello Mastroianni Award for best newcomer to Megan Bums, who plays Liam’s teenaged sister, Teresa. As fine as she is, Burns can’t begin to compete with the power of Borrows’ characterization. His Liam is one of the great child performances in film history, worthy of ranking with Roddy McDowall in How Green Was My Valley, Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows, Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun, Jackie Coogan in The Kid, and Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker.
No doubt the festival jury was reflecting the common prejudice that small children don’t really act and that the quality of movie acting can be measured by how well and consciously an actor plays a character distinguishable from himself. But the greatest movie acting is that in which the actor and the character become indistinguishable and the acting no longer seems like acting. A small child, guided by a shrewd and sensitive director, may not be fully conscious of what he is doing on screen, but lack of self-consciousness is an asset rather than a liability for a movie performer, as can be seen in the work of such great stars as Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, and James Cagney.
Whenever Liam deals with Liam himself and studies the world around him from his wide-eyed, often horrified perspective — usually from his low-angled stance with subtly expressionistic lighting to help convey his feelings — the film offers unforgettable scenes of childhood trauma. Unlike the child/adult narrator of McCourt’s book, Liam is virtually mute, his tongue painfully tied with a stutter, no doubt resulting from the many forms of repression he has already experienced in his first seven years. This “mute, inglorious Milton” struggles to comprehend a world of pervasive terror and violence governed by irrational adults who fail utterly in teaching him the realities of life.
During the several weeks’ span of time the film covers, Liam is in the process of preparing for his first communion. This involves a severe regimen or brainwashing and various other forms of physical and psychological abuse by his lay teacher, Mrs. Abernathy (Anne Reid), and his parish priest, Father Ryan (Russell Dixon). Before the children are deemed worthy of receiving communion, they must make their first confession to, as the teacher puts it, “wash away all that filth, all that sin.” These are seven-year-old children who, according to church teaching, have just attained the age of reason.
Poor Liam is soon in anguish over his perceived sinfulness and the threats of Hell he so vividly imagines as he stares into fires warming unemployed men on street comers. Like other boys in his class, he is fascinated by the image of a beautiful naked woman in an art book. This Madonna-like image is echoed by Liam’s accidental sight of his naked “Mum” (Claire Hackett) taking a bath. Her prudish screams further terrorize the youngster, and it’s no wonder he can’t bring himself to confess this “sin,” thereby causing him to make a “false” confession.
After receiving first communion in what he believes to be a state of mortal sin (“I’ll go to Hell when I die”), Liam staggers down the aisle, trying to escape the church, only to collapse in a faint apparently unnoticed by anyone around him. Anthony Borrows’s acting in this scene, like the way he marches along sidewalks in lengthy tracking shots practicing words to speak in social situations, shows a skillful command of acting technique that belies the notion that this extraordinary child was a mere puppet of his director.
Jimmy McGovern, a well-known television writer in England, wrote the screenplay for Liam, produced by the BBC in conjunction with various other European companies. McGovern is afflicted with stuttering, and he says that the script’s treatment of a Catholic upbringing is also autobiographical. But the fact that Liam is “inspired by” Joseph McKeown’s book The Back Crack Boy is mentioned only in fine print near the end of the closing credits. Such ungenerous acknowledgment usually suggests an anxiety over indebtedness that unfortunately is all too common in the film industry.
If Liam were all about Liam, it would be a masterpiece. But it is two films in one. The story of Liam’s abuse by the church shares screen time with a more conventional story of poverty and anti-Semitism, and the two stories are not fully integrated. Liam’s father (Ian Hart), identified only by the generic “Dad,” works in a shipyard owned by a Jewish man named Samuels (David Knopov). Teresa works as a maid in the Samuels home. Dad bitterly scapegoats Jews when the shipyard closes and he loses his job.
The first time we see the Samuels home, the viewer probably will feel a twinge of envy and resentment at the sight of such wealth in contrast to the Sullivans’ drab working-class surroundings. But this kneejerk reaction gradually creates a sense of shame in the viewer as Liam addresses the outsider status of the Samuels family in a country and decade badly infected with anti-Semitism.
The mutual wariness between the Sullivans and their employers is suggested when Teresa’s Mum warns her before her job interview, “No daughter of mine cleans another woman’s lavatory” (Teresa quietly does so anyway). Thinking a lie is necessary to get the job, Teresa tells Mrs. Samuels (Jane Gurnett), “I’m not Catholic.” The lady doesn’t care one way or the other, but Teresa feels a growing sense of guilt for denying her faith.
When Mrs. Samuels tells her to throw out a partly-eaten roast, Teresa takes it home surreptitiously and gets in trouble with both her mother and her employer. A classic situation for an Irish maid in that era, taking leftover food also is the subject of an impassioned scene in Frank O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah and John Ford’s film version of that novel. Mayor Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) bitterly recalls that his mother was fired by her WASP employer for trying to feed her impoverished family. Skeffington’s revenge for that injustice is to become mayor of Boston and governor of Massachusetts.
Teresa Sullivan’s punishment for her theft is finding herself blackmailed into being an accomplice to an extramarital affair Mrs. Samuels is conducting. Eventually, Father Ryan orders her in confession to quit her job to avoid such moral compromises. Unable to tell the Samuels family the real reason, Teresa wounds them unintentionally by making them assume the priest was acting out of anti-Semitic motives. Like Liam, Teresa remains mute, unable to articulate her dilemma.
Dad, on the other hand, finds an outlet for his mounting frustration over being out of work by joining the British Union of Fascists. In his impotent rage, he overlooks the implications of a rally speaker who lumps together Irishmen and Jews as enemies of Britain. Rather than drawing from this a realization that the two minorities should be allies instead of enemies, Dad seems willfully oblivious to understanding. Indeed, once he puts on the black shirt of fascism he lashes out at one of his own relatives, demanding, “Get out of my country.”
This is all thoughtfully presented but without much depth. Other than an outburst from the oldest Sullivan child (David Hart) against his father’s bigotry, we don’t know what the rest of the family thinks of Dad’s political evolution, even at the end of the film after events have spiraled out of control. We can guess, but their feelings should have been dramatized more fully.
Nor do we learn much about the personality of Mr. Samuels, other than that he is suffering because he suspects his wife’s infidelity. We don’t know how culpable or not he might be for the closing of the shipyard, and what his attitude is toward his workers. And until nearly the end of the film, we hear almost nothing from the Samuels family about the anti-Semitism they must realize is gathering like a poisonous cloud around them.
Filmmakers Frears and McGovern have been challenged by some interviewers who’ve questioned Liam’s harsh portrayal of a Catholic upbringing. Anne Reid plays his teacher like a fairy-tale ogre, and Russell Dixon as the priest looks like the American gangster movie bad guy Emile Meyer. Brendan Gleeson turned down the part of Father Ryan, arguing that the priests he knows do good for people.
Such reactions miss the point entirely, for Liam is not intended as a comprehensive, even-handed documentary on the history of modern Catholicism but as an artistic evocation of many people’s common experiences of being terrorized as children by the church.
As one who went through experiences remarkably similar to Liam’s during the awful experience of my first confession and communion as a boy growing up in the American Midwest, I can vouch for the film’s uncanny and universal veracity. While watching Liam, I felt what Herman Melville described as “the shock of recognition.” Going through those experiences in April 1956, I realized how warped the church is to force small children to cleanse their souls of imagined sins before they are allowed to receive what is supposed to be a joyous sacrament. It took me ten more years to work up the courage to leave the church forever, but the events of my first confession and communion marked the beginning of that process.
Because its dual story-lines never quite come together in a meaningful way, Liam leaves the viewer with a somewhat sketchy and unresolved feeling. It gave me feelings of rage and despondency that lasted for days. Frears and McGovern never reach the sustained heights of tragedy that writer-director Robert Bresson achieves in his 1967 film about a child suicide, Mouchette, from the novel by Georges Bernanos.
The ending of Mouchette, despite its horrific nature, leaves the viewer with a feeling of tragic inevitability, a sense of catharsis and deeper understanding.
Liam offers a tiny ray of hope at the end that the boy, if not his sister, may somehow attain a semblance of peace and happiness. The scars of his experience probably run too deep for that. Yet human beings, particularly children, are nothing if not resilient. The truly hopeful sign at the end of this disturbingly beautiful film is its suggestion that the abuse Liam has suffered has not deprived him of the capacity to love and the impulse to protect others from suffering.
I console myself after seeing Liam by remembering the words of Albert Camus: “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children.” ♦