One of the more fascinating films of the year so far, Broken tells the story of Emily, or Skunk as she’s better known, a teenage girl living in North London with her father, older brother and full-time babysitter. Following her mother’s departure several years ago, Skunk now has to face the world of secondary school, the advances of boys and more importantly, her life at home.
Living in the surrounding houses are families with their own problems that all end up connecting on very physical and emotional levels; Skunk’s story is simply the largest of these strands. Across the street are the Osmonds, living without a mother and without morals, the anger of the father fuelling the behaviour of his three daughters and vice versa. The sisters are not unused to smoking, swearing and harassing Skunk at school. Their constant abuse of Skunk’s best friend, Rick Buckley, the mentally disabled man living with his parents in the house opposite, is where the damage is really done, forcing him eventually to be taken away to an institute. Everything overlaps.
Primarily Broken is a film about the loss of innocence. Acts of violence in this community are all witnessed by children and these are the people it affects the most. Almost as soon as the film begins, Skunk sees Mr Osmond attack Rick after one of his daughters falsely accuses him of rape, and the impact it has on her life is huge; her subsequent actions all seem to stem from this one event. The way in which she views adults changes radically, even with her father and babysitter, finding it necessary to confront them about lying or else wilfully disobeying them to the point that she forms her own independence. In this way Broken could be seen as a coming-of-age story, one that echoes films in the same vein as This Is England or Billy Elliot perhaps, or the kind of ‘gritty’, modern-day urban dramas such as Kidulthood or NEDS, though of course dealing with a much younger group of children.
Cillian Murphy, who plays Skunk’s English teacher, gives one of the more surprising performances of the film, one that we don’t get with his Christopher Nolan roles; very hard-edged, but also emotionally involving. His relationships with the children, especially Skunk and her family are so well shaped and so well acted that Broken might be his finest film to date. The actress that really brings it all together though is Eloise Laurence (relatively unknown, although she is the daughter of Larry Lamb), a girl who plays it cool with a self-assuredness that makes it obvious that she knows what she’s doing. We can expect great things.
Broken is an incredible film, but also unanticipated. Directed by theatre director Rufus Norris with a confidence it’s hard to find in debut features. It’s certainly a violent film, to the point that it actually becomes shocking, but it’s the little quirks that Norris inserts that stop Broken from crossing into the darker side. He never forgets that his protagonist is a teenage girl and that is why the film is such a success.