In Rufus Norris' bluntly titled Broken, adapted from Daniel's Clay's highly-regarded novel, the story of a severely diabetic pre-teen girl, Skunk (Eloise Laurence), takes us through the happenings of an ordinary British cul-de-sac, the setting for a domino effect of wavering innocence and false accusations. All it takes is some flippant finger-pointing from a nasty teenage girl across the way and the response from her hot-headed, grieving father (Rory Kinnear) to knock the first tile down, leading to a brutal attack that unfolds right before Skunk's eyes, traumatizing both her and the victim of the attack. Norris' film shows what happens after she witnesses the attack, from her maturing rapport with her lawyer father, Archie (Tim Roth), and her adaptation to a new grade level to the assorted romantic relationships that blossom and crumble around her. Despite being well-made and well-performed, Broken doesn't really know what to do with the collage of themes it presents, though, offering slices of disrupted life that can't quite line up with one another.
Director Norris' visual and editorial aesthetic resembles the likes of Danny Boyle's work, lingering over Skunk's shoulder while alternating between lively footage of her in-town travels -- complete with playful music and sound effects -- and steady, sobering shots of the things she witnesses. As a result, Broken adopts both humor and gritty drama that discordantly mingle with one another, coexisting in an atypical but initially absorbing blend of bright and stark tones while painting a picture of the girl's life. The components in Skunk's coming-of-age story draw one's attention: the relationship between the family's nanny, Kasia (Zana Marjanovic), and her long-term teacher boyfriend, Mike (Cilian Murphy), who might be instructing at Skunk's new school; her clumsy dating with a slightly-older first boyfriend; and how she handles the bullying and newcomer hazing at her school from her snappish curly-haired neighbor. Her story is juxtaposed with a look at the victim of the film's initial beating, Rick (Robert Emms), namely his mental duress and the sympathy Skunk feels for him.
The individual parts in Broken end up being better than the sum, however. Each piece of Skunk's puzzle of experience -- the harassment at a new school, the boyfriend, her crush on Mike, her fluctuating relationship with her father, her friendship with the mentally unhinged neighbor -- provokes reserved yet effective emotional responses around her perception of the complicated shifts in her life, things that'll shape the context of how she observes people going forward. Her coming-of-age story also fights to coexist with themes involving false accusations and witch hunts, though, deriving clear influence from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird in its depiction of Skunk's fiery neighbors and their quickness to blame and lash out. Despite Norris' craftsmanship giving each part its own weight, there are too many intense sensations and not enough to glue them together into a cohesive outlook on impacting Skunk and those around her, tiptoeing the line between subtlety and ineffectiveness while trying to convey a concrete point.
Broken comes close to rising above its cluttered purpose with an excellent host of performances, namely from Eloise Laurence as Skunk. Sure, Tim Roth's magnetic, stern demeanor nails the desired father figure inside Archie, while Cilian Murphy turns in a sharp under-the-radar performance as Mike, a devoted and charming teacher who's forced to handle curveballs thrown his way. Robert Emms is also easy to appreciate as the deer-in-headlights victim of a senseless beating, who descends into a troubled psychological state. But it's Laurence's natural reactions to the events around her that give the film its core, from awkward conversations with her new boyfriend to her haunting responses to traumatic events. There's a respectable authenticity in Skunk's growth as an individual, a marriage of acting talent and Norris' self-aware direction, that becomes absorbing as she observes life's hiccups: breakups, beatdowns, and other surprises that send her headlong into the world of quickly growing up. When the script meanders, Laurence keeps her afloat.
Instead of Skunk's experiences focusing into an interlocking drama with a clear viewpoint near the end, Broken instead dials up the coincidences and surprises in order to leave a stronger melodramatic imprint, while in the process clouding its commentary on impressionability and false accusations. Unnecessary, arguably aimless bluster send Norris' film through a brutal and bleak gauntlet at the end, hinged more on the poor decisions people make instead of fleshing out its themes, piling up convenience after convenience with lapses in common sense. Frustratingly, it all leads to a well-performed but unpersuasive climax featuring a surreal setting, without saying much beyond the fact that Skunk's got the fight for living that'll overcome any challenges thrown her way in the future. It's unfortunate to see a compelling character such as her caught up in such a brazen last act that doubles down on the film's title, once again making her a victim of circumstance and compassion.
Video and Audio:
Broken arrives from the ever-reliable Film Movement in an impressive 1.85:1-framed, slightly windowboxed, widescreen-enhanced transfer, an intentionally subdued affair at most points with moments of shrewd clarity and impressive skin-tone presentation. While grainy black levels and a general haze crop up at times, there's also an admirable caliber of detail projected here -- in strands of hair, details in clothing, and gnarled metal in the junkyard. Close-ups allow the color of skin to stay warm yet reactive to the film's fluctuating temperature palette, while other splashes of color -- the amber shade of beer, deep red in blood, and the soft blues and teals in Rick's house -- allow impressive shades to pop from the image. Probably the disc's most impressive visual triumph is its ability to stay free of distortion during more vigorous moving sequences, during fights and moving through the junkyard. It's a very strong transfer.
Audio arrives in a serviceable 5.1 Dolby Digital surround treatment that doesn't have a lot of impressive features, yet charges through the film with aplomb. Thicker English accents aren't a problem with this track, staying clear and audible at all times with exceptional awareness of the scenes' surroundings. Bursts of louder, energy-fueled music do shake the soundtrack up quite a bit at times, while a few faint surround elements do trail off into the rear channels. A few moments of clarity do stand out -- the jingle of coins, the sound of punches on flesh, the rattle of a stick on a fence -- which come through with enough assertiveness and stability to stand out. But, as one can surmise, it's an intimate film with intimate sounds, which get their point across well.
Aside from Bios on the actors / director and a Theatrical Trailer (2:27, 16x9), Film Movement's DVD also comes with a slate of in-depth, earnest Interviews (25:10, 16x9) with Tim Roth, Cilian Murphy, Eloise Laurence, and director Rufus Norris about the production and realizing their characters. Also, the disc comes equipped with a Bonus Short Film: The Way the World Ends (14:54, 16x9).
Broken is worth a look for Rufus Norris' craftsmanship and the range of performances that deliver both reserved humor and unsettling drama, namely a breakout turn from Eloise Laurence, but it comes up short as an effective portrayal of coming-of-age morality and a comment on wrongful accusations. All the components are there, and they're interesting to behold individually, but the film lacks the bonds it needs between all the elements to take shape as a complete portrayal. An ending that goes overboard with dramatic coincidence doesn't help, either. It's a shame, too, because Norris does accomplish some interesting things with the characters themselves and their individual issues, namely with Skunk. Rent It.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site