Liam Sullivan is a seven-year-old lad living in the slums of Liverpool in the 1930s. He is the youngest of three children, an earnest, introverted child cursed with a terrible stutter. Along with his parents, brother and sister, Liam lives in a home where money is tight, but their love for each other and the respect of their community is unquestioned.
Two tragic events occur that will shatter Liam's domestic tranquility. His dad is fired from the local mine, while his sister Teresa gains a job cleaning for a wealthy Jewish family. Father’s anger and humiliation at joining the ranks of the unemployed sees him join the local Fascist party, and Teresa’s job leads to unexpectedly tragic consequences.
The story shares many elements and themes with Angela's Ashes, Billy Elliot and their ilk – the young protagonist growing up in a disintegrating society, the poverty-stricken urban setting, the emasculation and loss of hope that accompanies unemployment, and the dangers of xenophobia and fascism. It’s a dark film, lacking the uplifting ending suggested by its tagline “Big Heroes Come In Small Packages”. There are no heroes in Liam.
However, the grimness is occasionally juxtaposed with spots of unexpected black humour. Liam’s stern schoolteacher and the local priest provide a hilarious, yet scarily authentic (or so I’ve been told) portrait of the fear and guilt-inducing sermonising that characterised the Catholic Church’s teachings until the latter half of the century. The scene in which they warn a classroom of terrified youngsters of the dangers of committing sin (“Every time you do, you drive the nails further through the hands of baby Jesus”) is a corker.
Liam was written by Jimmy McGovern (perhaps best known in this country as the creator of the Robbie Coltrane crime series Cracker) and directed by Stephen Frears (whose High Fidelity and Dangerous Liaisons are light years away from this film). Despite its low budget and its similarities to the aforementioned films, it’s a captivating movie that relies on an immersive story and a brilliant cast rather than spectacle or melodrama. Special mention must be made of the faultless performance of Anthony Burrows as the maladjusted seven-year-old. His earnestness and intelligence is the heart and soul of Liam.
Liam is a fine film, beautifully crafted and brilliantly acted by a top-notch British cast. The story has little new to say, but it's still a worthy addition to a subgenre that includes Angela's Ashes and Billy Elliot. This is a modest disc for an unpretentious, but very worthy film.