Family Affairs: Everything in Broken Is Broken

An overwrought adaptation of Daniel Clay's dark, suburban novel

Cillian Murphy in Broken.

Eloise Laurence in Broken.

An arty domestic drama with dark and sinister undertones, Broken begins as a quirky look at three dysfunctional families at the end of an ugly street in the British suburbs and ends, 90 minutes later, in a Grand Guignol of horror. Based on a kinky 2008 novel by Daniel Clay, it’s a rare foray into filmmaking by London stage director Rufus Norris that suffers from a lagging tempo, artificial performances and a literary structure that fails to make the transition from page to film with enough cinematic technique to keep a movie audience awake.

At the center of the shrieking and mayhem is a friendly and innocent 11-year-old girl named Skunk (Eloise Laurence), who begins her summer vacation watching the Oswald family, her crude and violent neighbors across the street, beating the hell out of a mentally handicapped boy named Rick after the sluttish oldest daughter falsely accuses him of rape. When they aren’t devoting themselves to tormenting the unstable Rick, the three Oswald daughters bully and batter Skunk and steal her allowance, threatening her with death. Skunk complains to her father Archie (Tim Roth), but he’s too busy getting it on with the au pair, Kasia, who breaks up with her boyfriend Mike (prissy-mouthed Cillian Murphy) to shift her seductive and crafty affections to Archie, who has never fully recovered from being deserted by his wife. He cares for Skunk and her brother Jed but is too preoccupied to give them the attention they need. Mike is Skunk’s favorite schoolteacher, so when the lunatic Mr. Oswald breaks his nose after one of the three nasty redheaded Oswald sisters accuses him of making her pregnant, Mike is forced to hire Archie as his attorney. The sauce thickens as the plot cooks up more contrived situations in a recipe for the kind of British soap opera cockney housewives watch during rainy afternoons on the BBC. Meanwhile, Rick’s neurotic parents send him off to a mental clinic.

Did I forget to mention that Skunk is a diabetic who divides her time between observing the miseries of her various neighbors and her daily ritual of insulin injections? Her only escape is to play in a nearby junkyard filled with broken, discarded automobiles. Everything in Broken is broken, including the movie itself. The melodrama boils over on the night the fragile, severely unstable Rick comes home from the loony bin at the precise hour the Oswald girl is suffering a graphic miscarriage. Murder and attempted suicide follow in rapid succession, leaving the neighborhood a mess. Will Skunk ever be the same? Will she eventually change her name? Awkward music cues and choppy camera work add baggage to a film so overwrought that its excesses seem more unintentionally silly than bleakly disturbing.

rreed@observer.com

BROKEN

WRITTEN BY: Daniel Clay and Mark O’Rowe

DIRECTED BY: Rufus Norris

STARRING: Cillian Murphy, Tim Roth and Lily James

RUNNING TIME: 91 mins.

RATING: 1/4 stars