By Fionnuala Halligan
Dir. Ken Loach. UK/Fr/Belg/It/Sp. 2009. 116mins.
A light-hearted Ken Loach – or as light-hearted as Ken Loach gets - and his longtime writing partner Paul Laverty add humour to the social mix in Looking For Eric, Loach’s tonally-varied but most widely accessible film which could end up being his highest-grosser. Audaciously dropping the French former footballer into a dramatic scenario involving a depressed Manchester postman, his off-the-rails gun-toting stepson, longed-for ex-wife and bantering salt-of-the-earth colleagues, Loach crams a few films into this unique title and manages to pull them into one crowd-pleaser by the end.
UK response could be very solid for this feel-good film (June 12), despite a lengthy running time and the jolting introduction of a heavy dramatic stand-off mid-way through what initially seemed to be a more whimsical piece. French returns will also be strong on release on May 27 – apart from his iconic status, Cantona’s bon mots are often delivered in French – although action outside Europe is less certain.
Eric runs the gamut from whimsy, social commentary, high drama and violence before moving into a crowd-pleasing, literally rabble-rousing finale. And then there’s Eric Cantona, standing in a postie’s Manchester bedroom delivering words of wisdom. It’s an odd mix, but it should all spell wider returns than his 2007 Palme D’Or-winning The Wind That Shakes the Barley (worldwide $22.8m; UK$7.5m, Fr$6.2m) and a whole new generation of viewers for Loach.
We meet depressed, middle-aged Eric Bishop (Steve Evets, another Loach discovery) as he’s driving the wrong way around a roundabout, an escapade which lands him in hospital. His friends at the Royal Mail are concerned and try to cheer him up by telling jokes in some of the movie’s most amusing sequences. Chief amongst them is a wisecracking Johan Henshaw as Meatballs, another great performance which often seems ad-libbed.
Slowly it transpires that Eric, abandoned and ineffectual step-father to two mouthy teenage sons, has recently come in contact again with his ex-wife Lily (Stephanie Bishop), mother of Eric’s only natural child Sam (Lucy-Jo Hudson) and it has thrown his life out of kilter.
A Manchester United fan (there’s some heavy-handed speechifying about the corporatisation of football), Eric is given to addressing a poster of Eric Cantona hanging in the neat bedroom of his otherwise squalid house. One day, Cantona himself is standing there (Evets apparently had no idea this was about to transpire). Cantona’s function in the film is to try to bring Eric back to his life, through some enigmatic advice and sharing of spliffs.
But just as Eric starts to get the courage together to speak to Lily – they are sharing childcare duties for their grandchild - his older foul-mouthed stepson Ryan (Gerard Kearns), in with a bad crowd, ups the ante in an unexpectedly-violent way.
At this point, Loach could take the film in any direction, but he surprisingly opts for the Working Title route to pull it all together with a heart-warming finale in which the postmen come to the fore and solidarity conquers all.
Performances are as crisp and seemingly-genuine as in any Loach film – Evets and Henshaw are the main finds, while Cantona does look ill at ease at times and the aphorisms can wear a little thin. Working again with DoP Barry Ackroyd and production designer Fergus Clegg, Loach grounds Looking For Eric in complete realism – there’s no attempt at trickery involving any of Cantona’s scenes, even though the character is evidently imaginary.
By Derek Elley
(U.K.-France-Italy-Belgium-Spain) An Icon Film Distribution (in U.K.)/Diaphana (in France) release of a Sixteen Films, Film Four (U.K.)/Canto Brothers, Why Not Prods., Wild Bunch, France 2 Cinema (France)/BIM Distribuzione (Italy)/Les Films du Fleuve, RTBF (Belgium)/Tornasol Films (Spain) production. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Rebecca O'Brien. Executive producers, Eric Cantona, Pascal Caucheteux, Vincent Maraval.
Directed by Ken Loach. Screenplay, Paul Laverty.
With: Steve Evets, Eric Cantona, John Henshaw, Stephanie Bishop, Gerard Kearns, Lucy-Jo Hudson, Stefan Gumbs, Justin Moorhouse, Des Sharples, Greg Cook, Mick Ferry, Smug Roberts, Johnny Travis.
(English, French dialogue)
No prior knowledge of either English soccer or one of its greatest stars of the '90s, French-born Eric Cantona, is necessary to go "Looking for Eric." But helmer Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty's ninth feature together is a curious hybrid: Three movies -- boilerplate, socially aware Loach; personal fantasy; romantic comedy -- wrap around a central core of a hopeless soccer fanatic who's given a second chance to sort out his life. As in many of Laverty's scripts, problems of overall tone and character development aren't solved by Loach's easygoing direction, though when it works, "Eric" has many incidental pleasures.
How many fans of the now-retired Cantona (who co-exec produced and initiated the project) will turn out to see a Loach pic, especially in Blighty, remains a moot point, especially when word gets out that the Manchester United icon is only in a few scenes. But with smart marketing, this could reach fractionally beyond the usual Loach demographic. Stateside chances are more questionable given Cantona's lack of U.S. profile.
Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) is a fortysomething Manchester postal worker who returns home from the hospital (after a car crash) to find the place, and his life, in chaos, as usual. His two layabout stepsons, Ryan (Gerard Kearns) and Jess (Stefan Gumbs), show him no respect. And his wife, Lily (Stephanie Bishop), who left him seven years ago, won't talk to him, despite the efforts of their grown daughter, Sam (Lucy-Jo Hudson).
His work colleagues (also avid Manchester United fans), led by portly Meatballs (John Henshaw, good), try to cheer him up. But then one night, while getting high in his bedroom, Eric is "visited" by another Eric, his all-time idol Cantona.
Given that this is a Loach movie, Cantona's appearance is handled in an entirely natural way, sans vfx, though it's economically made clear that the onetime soccer star is a figment of Eric's dopey imagination. As the two get to know each other, the ooh-la-la Frenchman starts giving advice to Eric on how to get back with Lily, his first, teenage love (shown in flashbacks) for whom Eric has never lost his devotion.
Dialogue during the two men's heart-to-hearts cleverly plays on Cantona's rep for straight-talking -- "She has big balls!" he exclaims about Lily -- and he and Evets show the relaxed chemistry of opposites bound by a shared obsession in their scenes together.
There's a similar warmth -- heightened by Loach regular Barry Ackroyd's sunnier lensing -- in the sequences of Eric cautiously restarting his relationship with Lily. Loach has always drawn good perfs from his female leads -- one thinks of Eva Birthistle in "Ae Fond Kiss ... " or Kierston Wareing in "It's a Free World ... " In Bishop, he's found another thesp who brings some much-needed estrogen to a basically male-dominated movie, as a still-attractive woman who would also like to give things a second chance but remains realistically suspicious.
In many respects, the wryly humorous Eric-Lily sections are the best parts of the movie and could easily have formed a complete pic given the wealth of background between the two. (Hudson as their grown daughter is also very simpatico.) But in an obvious contrivance to supply a third act, the script veers off into a disorienting subplot involving Ryan, a gun and some lowlifes.
This eventually leads to a crowd-pleasing finale involving Eric, Meatballs and the whole gang of Manchester United supporters that stresses a favorite Loach theme of the collective being stronger than the individual. Again, the bit is enjoyable but further jars the pic's search for an overarching tone.Though nowhere near as hard to decipher as that in the Loach-Laverty Scottish-set films, the dialogue here, with its Mancunian inflections, could cause some problems for Stateside viewers. Script also is unnecessarily littered with strong cussing.
Camera (Deluxe color), Barry Ackroyd; editor, Jonathan Morris; music, George Fenton; production designer, Fergus Clegg; art director, Julie Ann Horan; costume designer, Sarah Ryan; sound (Dolby Digital), Ray Beckett; assistant directors, David Gilchrist, Michael Queen; casting, Kahleen Crawford. Reviewed at Soho Hotel preview theater, London, April 30, 2009. (In Cannes Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 116 MIN.