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A morality tale of xenophobia, religious prejudice, mob violence, poverty, and their effect on two children in Liverpool during the Depression. When a shipyard closes, Liam and Teresa's dad loses his job. Liam, who's about 8, making his first Holy Communion, gets a regular dose of fire and brimstone at church. Teresa, about 13, has a job as a maid to the Jewish family that owns the closed shipyard. The lady of that house is having an affair, and Teresa becomes an accomplice. Liam stutters terribly, especially when troubled. Dad comes under the sway of the Fascists, who blame cheap Irish labor and Jewish owners. A Molotov cocktail brings things to a head. Written by
Powerful, Poignant, Moving (and available for rental)
British filmmakers can and very often do lampoon their country's class system and its internecine struggles, amusing and entertaining us. Or they can, as in "Liam," starkly and powerfully bring to the screen a slice of 1930s, Depression-struck Liverpool and through a family show in microcosm the near self-destruction of a society (thank goodness for World War II).
England then (and now) is largely populated in working class industrial areas by Irish immigrants or their first-generation offspring. An uneasy peace between native-born working class families and Irish immigrants periodically erupts into dissension when times are bad. They were very bad in the early Thirties when a doctrine-bound Catholic church struggled to maintain a spiritual hold on dissatisfied and nearly penniless parishioners while Sir Oswald Mosely's British Union of Fascists took to the street offering a secular religion of bigotry and violence.
"Liam" is a little boy by that name who suffers from an inability to get words out when questioned or pressed but who can speak clearly in a sing-song voice when alone or at ease. He adores his older sister, Teresa, and basks in her returned love. "Dad" and "Mum" aren't given names, an effect that creates a sense of "Everyman(woman)". Dad is a proud laborer, at first suspicious of the church and latterly angry at its exactions of the small amount of money unemployed and underpaid workers have. Mom is just what you'd expect - an equally proud but pragmatic woman who strives every waking minute to manage her family. A son who leans far to the left politically is the constant irritant to dad's pride of place and certainty of values.
Dad loses his job and Teresa goes to work as a maid for the man who closed the factory where dad worked. Actually she is hired by his wife. At first unsuspectingly and then unwillingly she becomes a confidant and accomplice of the adulteress woman of the house. As we would say today, Teresa has "issues."
Meanwhile, back at the church and elementary school Liam and the children are besieged by priest and female teacher with an endless stream of horror stories about hell and exaltations to embrace doctrine unquestioningly. The strap is never out of employment for long. Not for a second do the older pair reveal the slightest comprehension of the brewing economic and social storm that the children face day in and day out.
Anti-Semitism has never been in short supply in England and in the 1930s its worst manifestations, fueled by the growing Nazi and Fascist movements, were acted out. Dad develops from a relatively benign reflexive anti-Semitism to full-fledged Jew hatred. Director Stephen Frears risked but avoided stereotyping by making his Jewish landlord, Jewish pawnbroker and affluent Jewish family hated simply because of who they were rather than by any grotesque manipulation of what they did in Liverpool. While several reviewers decry that the characters who were viewed as oppressors are all Jews, the reality is that this was one instance when both Irish Catholics and threatened by competition and unemployment English did unite against the visible and unfairly blamed Jews of Liverpool.
The cast is largely unknown here but their acting is superb. Anthony Borrows as Liam can't be overlooked. This little boy lives his complex role. I was drawn into their circle by the strength of the acting. Dad's family slides into a brush with true poverty realistically. Their pain and enveloping helplessness escapes the screen.
This film isn't anti-Catholic. It chronicles a church some few remember that did what it was trained to do, leaving for future generations the demand for reform and insight into the realities of family and community life. As obtuse as the priest and school teacher are, they probably imbued enough people with an unquestioning belief in the church to keep them immune from the blandishments of radicals on the left and fascists on the right. That's no small accomplishment.
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