Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” makes your heart hurt. In case you haven’t read it (or seen the BAFTA-winning film the novel’s based on), “Atonement’s” about a young girl with a wild imagination; 13-year-0ld Briony Tallis thinks more than she sees — and what she sees she doesn’t fully understand. She falsely accuses her sister’s love interest, Robbie Turner, of rape and has to live with the consequences for the rest of her life.
While Rufus Norris’ impressive debut picture, “Broken,” also features a precocious pre-adolescent girl and a visually striking opening scene, Emily “Spunk” Cunningham (played by the talented Eloise Lawrence) isn’t Briony Tallis. Spunk resembles another literary heroine, the tomboyish Scout Finch from Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
Like “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “Broken” deals with a child’s loss of innocence as she learns about the troubling grown-up world around her. Within the first five minutes of the film, she sees Mr. Oswald (Rory Kinnear) beat up Rick Buckley (Robert Emms), their harmless mentally unstable neighbor.
“I don’t get it,” says her older brother, Jed (Bill Milner), as they watch from their second story window across the street. “Why’s Rick the one they arrest?”
The next scene takes us inside the Oswald’s single parent home, where Bob (Kinnear) struggles to raise his three rebellious teenaged daughters Saskia (Faye Daveney), Susan (Rosalie Kosky-Hensman) and Sunrise (Martha Bryant). Mr. Oswald finds the condom Susan’s flushed down the toilet and asks for a name.
“Rick Buckley,” she answers after a moment’s hesitation.
These are, of course, serious allegations, but Susan doesn’t ask for atonement. She’s a ticking time bomb — an Oleanna among a school of poor schmucks. (Later, she and her sisters insouciantly house a party while their father’s in jail.)
Based on Daniel Clay’s novel, “Broken” is a modern retelling of “To Kill A Mockingbird” (this one takes place in North London rather than the sleepy Alabama town of Maycomb).
The parallels become apparent as we examine the film. Boo Radley’s Rick Buckley, who becomes a social recluse following his arrest and release. Atticus Finch is Spunk and Jed’s father, Archie Cunningham (Tim Roth), a local solicitor and Spunk’s hero. Calpurnia’s in the Cunningham’s nanny Kasia (Zana Marjanovic) and Scout and Jem’s childhood friend Dill Harris is Dillon (George Sergeant). Scout and Jem’s hole in a tree is a neighborhood junkyard that houses an abandoned RV. Last but not least, our Tom Robinson is schoolteacher Mike Kiernan (Cillian Murphy), whose altruistic endeavors puts him in the wrong place at the wrong time.
While Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe’s script takes these pieces and assembles them in a succinct, coherent and seamless narrative, Norris directs a captivating and visually-striking coming-of-age story. Like “Atonement,” the film teases us, giving us front row seats to an isolated and unforgiving act of violence before pulling back the curtain and revealing the full picture.
This couldn’t have been done without Rob Hardy’s close-up shots, Victoria Boydell’s editing, the excellent ensemble’s acting and the more than two dozen musicians and sound mixers, providing the distant ringing, buzzing, melodies and techno beats.
Lawrence draws us in with her lovely voice, singing Electric Wave Bureau’s “Colours” in the film’s title sequence. We’re privy to a kalidascope of shots and sounds: a baby crying in an incubator, a father’s watchful gaze, a girl’s infectious laughter as she’s running through green fields. In a few short seconds, Norris invokes an array of emotions, including love and nostalgia. Who doesn’t remember those short carefree days of childhood?
It’s unfortunate how fast kids have to grow up.
“Broken” was directed by Rufus Norris and written by Mark O’Rowe, based on Daniel Clay’s novel. The film won the 2012 BAFTA for the Best British Independent Film.