A first feature by director Rufus Norris, adapted from a first novel by Daniel Clay, this British drama nonetheless looks back, to Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird and its 1962 screen adaptation. Clay has said that his novel came to life when he “started to wonder how the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird would cope with life in the society we live in today, as times have changed so much in the eighty or so years since the events in that novel took place, yet, as basic human beings, I don’t think we’ve moved on a great deal at all.” The central characters, who live on a cul-de-sac in North London, include a spirited 11-year-old tomboy named Skunk (Eloise Laurence, an actress of considerable promise); her older brother, Jed (Bill Milner); and their kind attorney father, Archie (Tim Roth in one of his finest performances). You might be tempted to call the movie derivative, though for some reason that charge is seldom levied at the hundreds of movies, TV shows, and video games patterned after Night of the Living Dead.
Along with this family there are two others in houses ringing the street, the brutal Oswalds and the mild Buckleys, both of them weak at the broken places. The seething Bob Oswald (Rory Kinnear, excellent) has lost his wife, and his three snotty daughters are drifting into promiscuity; when one lies to him that the Buckleys’ mentally deficient son, Rick (Robert Emms), has forced himself on her, Bob marches across the street and kicks the shit out of the slender young man, in full view of Skunk. Rick’s father (Denis Lawson) is so frightened of Oswald that he begs Archie to intervene with the family, and the quiet confrontation between Archie and Oswald is so nicely played, perching Archie so gingerly between strength and gentleness, that the movie justifies comparison with its beloved predecessor.
Broken breaks out on its own as well, with some spirited sequences that are distinctly British and scored with jaunty, unassuming pop by Damon Albarn of Blur. Laurence is an able clown, and the intimate family scenes are frequently hilarious (in one, Jed pins down Skunk and covers her head with clothespins, to her giggling delight). There’s a butch puppy-love subplot in which Skunk grows fond of a neighborhood kid with a brush cut, though before their first kiss, inside an abandoned trailer in the woods, she cautions him, “No splashers!” The comic and tragic elements are nicely balanced and the three families’ stories neatly and economically knit together; only in the rushed final reels, when the cascading plot developments become a little frantic, does Norris seem to lose control of the story. But Broken is one of those films that risk feeling too much rather than too little, and in that regard you can only hope that it’s copied again and again.