Friday, June 19, 2009

Review - Looking for Eric

Ken Loach has always shied away from using major names in his films, but for many people, one of the actors in his latest picture is a more iconic presence than any Hollywood star.
Looking for Eric is a film about two men called Eric. One is a postman (Steve Evets) who has reached breaking point. Struggling to raise two teenage stepsons alone, and pining for his first wife, Eric begins hoarding undelivered letters and crashes his car after circling the roundabout numerous times in the wrong direction. The other Eric in this amiable tale is a certain Eric Cantona, the brilliant, enigmatic, volatile Frenchman who was a key figure in Manchester United's domination of 90's football. When we first see him, he's just an image, staring imperiously out from a poster on Eric the postman's wall. He gazes up at his idol and, under the influence of some weed, begins unburdening himself, explaining his problems and lamenting his lot. The last thing he expects is for Cantona to start talking back

In true
Play it Again, Sam style, a stunned Eric turns around to find Cantona sitting in his bedroom; a little older, a little heavier, and wearing a thick beard, but most definitely the man himself. Cantona becomes a kind of life coach for Eric, listening intently as the depressed postman discusses his abiding love for Lily (Stephanie Bishop), and offering words of wisdom in his own unique style. "Without danger, we cannot get past danger," he announces, "He who is afraid to roll the dice will never throw a six." These nuggets of philosophy don't wash with Eric, though. "Leave it out" he exclaims, "I still haven't gotten over the bloody seagulls!"

There hasn't been a lot of laughter in Ken Loach's films over the years, and as a result, the uplifting tone of
Looking for Eric makes it an unusual, and refreshing, anomaly. Having said that, there's still plenty of darkness balancing out the film's lighter moments, the kind of emotionally wrought working-class drama Loach and his regular collaborator Paul Laverty are renowned for, and it's an awkward combination. At times, it feels as if Laverty has yoked together two or three different films, and tried to give each an equal share of the spotlight, resulting in a story that needs to negotiate some tricky changes of pace, and a few troublesome plot developments. Thanks to Loach's sensitive direction, and the enormous charm of the performances, they just about manage to pull it off.

This kind of tale might be uncharted territory for Loach, but he hasn't adapted his approach in any way. Aside from one funny moment – where Cantona turns on Eric's record player by pointing at it, before inviting him to dance – Loach doesn't bring any element of magic or fantasy into their sequences together, instead allowing the real and unreal to slip seamlessly into each other. So, we see Cantona accompanying Eric on his post round, while they discuss his greatest goals, propping up the bar when Eric goes to buy a drink, or taking him for a jog in the woods. The effect is utterly surreal, and it's very amusing too, particularly with Cantona proving to be a natural and wittily self-aware actor. His role is more than just a gimmicky cameo too, with his career and reputation being skilfully worked into the premise, in a way that's relevant to Eric's troubles. In one scene, Eric tries to guess which of Cantona's goals ranks as his sweetest memory. His volley against Wimbledon, perhaps? How about the 1996 FA Cup Final winner? Each time, Cantona shakes his head and says, "No." The memory he selects is a pass, which allowed Denis Irwin to score against Tottenham. "Without your teammates, you are lost," he advises.

It's a neat scene, and Eric would indeed be lost without his pals from the post office (including, oddly, John Henshaw, from the current post office advertising campaign), who rally around their distressed colleague and furnish the picture with a number of hilarious exchanges. This, I thought, was everything
Looking for Eric required: there's romance in the potential reconciliation with Lily, a comment on the nature of celebrity in Cantona's appearance, a touching portrait of friendship via Eric's relationship with his workmates, and maybe an examination of psychological issues through his unhealthy mental state. But the inclusion of a subplot in which Eric's stepson (Gerard Kearns) gets involved with a local gangster seems to throw the whole film off balance. Laverty and Loach may well argue that they would have been remiss to ignore gun crime in a film set in Manchester, and that's a fair point, but it doesn't belong here. A number of the sequences surrounding this strand of the narrative are Looking for Eric's least convincing, and I resented the fact that it was eating up time the film could have used exploring much more interesting avenues.

All of this leads to a finale which is frankly ridiculous. It makes the appearance of Eric Cantona in a postman's bedroom seem like an everyday occurrence, and it has the effect of further undermining the seriousness of the film's gun-related plot (if only all of Manchester's gun crime could be resolved in such a fashion). On balance, I'd say Loach and Laverty just about get away with it, but it's touch and go for a while, and they owe their leading man a huge debt of gratitude. No, not the footballer, I'm talking about Steve Evets, the virtually unknown actor who portrays Eric the postman. He plays the role with honesty and a complete lack of sentimentality, bringing a sense of careworn resignation to the character early on, before making us believe in the re-ignition of his spirit as the film progresses. His hesitant edging towards a reunion with Lily (who is also beautifully played) is the heart of the picture, and the reason it manages to overcome its occasional narrative wobbles. All of the attention might be focused on the legendary figure among the cast, but in the end,
Looking for Eric belongs to his lesser-known namesake, and that's exactly how it should be.