Lives broken by false abuse claims

Broken (MA). Director: Rufus Norris. Starring: Cillian Murphy, Tim Roth, Zana Marjanovic, Eloise Laurence, Robert Emms, Rory Kinnear, Rosalie Kosky, Bill Milner, George Sargeant. 87 minutes

Along with the Danish film The Hunt, the British film Broken was the second, outstanding film I watched in as many days that is centrally concerned with wrongful allegations of child sex abuse.

Whereas The Hunt portrayed a small town gripped by paranoia after a sensitive and imaginative child's confused comments are taken out of context, in Broken the accusations are more sinister, used by a young girl to deflect consequences from herself, in full knowledge of the damage that her claims will cause to the accused.

She is not merely malicious however. Broken is a film where characters' dysfunctional moral compasses are tested by an environment where social and emotional hardship is a daily, oppressive reality.

It is based on a novel by Daniel Clay, which itself is in part a modern-day retelling of To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee's seminal novel about justice waylaid by prejudice. At its heart is charismatic pre-teen Skunk (read Scout), played by newcomer Laurence. She lives in a lower-middle-class culdesac with her brother Jed (Millner) and their divorced lawyer father Archie (Roth), who like Atticus Finch before him is the story's wise moral centre.

Skunk's coming of age is the soul of the film, as she witnesses and becomes embroiled in the tragic events that unfold in the troubled lives of two neighbouring familes. Her adoration for Mike (Murphy), the boyfriend of their housemaid Kasia (Marjanovic) (who herself is a sort-of love interest for Archie), and her budding pre-pubescent romance with new boy in town Dillon (Sargeant), stoke her emotional and psychological awakening.

The abuse allegation that sets the tragedy in motion is made by Susan (Kosky), one of three daughters of surly widower Bob (Kinnear). The sisters are cruel but not villainous; having been controlled by Bob's aggression, they use aggression to control others. Susan makes her accusation to deflect her father's rage. This might be almost forgiveable, but the effectiveness of the ploy teaches her a dangerous lesson that will return with a vengeance.

The person she accuses is Rick (Emms), a young man, ostracised because of an intellectual disability (he is a composite, perhaps, of Boo Radley and Tom Robinson), who has for some time suffered the sisters' abusive taunts. The consequences of Susan's allegation have lasting implications not only for him and his long-suffering parents, but also for the kindhearted Skunk, who aside from his parents is Rick's only friend on the street.

Broken is beautifully written by screenwriter Mark O'Rowe, and debutante director Norris and his cast carry the complicated characters and difficult subject with grace and empathy. Laurence is magnetic, capturing the tumult and extremes of a child's emotions, and Roth's Archie is, like Atticus, the softly spoken hero whose palpable loneliness is matched by a fierce love for his children, particularly the challenging but remarkable Skunk.

The script is deceptively intricate despite the short running time and has a knack for finding both profound joy and deep sadness in the mundane. See the way a young girl's act of willful resistance to parental discipline escalates from funny and cute to openly rebellious to something far more serious in the space of a few minutes.

It is a superficially gritty drama that also achieves genuine transcendence. There is something nearly mythic in the recurring image of nameless twins who cycle around town slinging sacks of shit at unsuspecting adults.

This vaguely 'magical' realism sets the stage for the film's more overtly metaphysical moments, such as Archie's recounted dream of Skunk's future, and the heartbreaking climax in which a character must make an explicit choice between the wearying vigour of life and the comforting surrender of death.

Broken is a reflection on both the unbearable brokenness of life as well as the intangible, indelible substances that make living it not just worthwhile, but essential. 

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Broken, Tim Roth, Rufus Norris, Cillian Murphy



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