Broken relentlessly maps the landscape of everyday suffering
Anna Friel is brilliant as the lead in Jimmy McGovern’s bleak drama about faith and desperation
Silent distracted anxiety: Anna Friel as Christina Fitzsimmons in Broken. Photograph: BBC
There is nothing in Jimmy McGovern’s Broken that audiences haven’t seen before. It’s a tale of unyielding working-class misery. The tears, the wringing exhaustion of a woman teetering on the edge, gripping her children’s hands, winding them down the rainy pathways. Late for something, always just that minute too late as the door slams in their face or the bus whizzes by. It’s there in the shocking realism of early Ken Loach, it’s there in the smoky corners of Mike Leigh films, the social dramas of the Dardenne brothers, a lineage of tired women as piously put upon as the Virgin Mary.
Anna Friel is the exasperated Christina, steely mother of three who is pushed to her limits after losing her minimum-wage job. Forced to contend with the Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare of the benefits system where she is blankly told to depend on the children’s absent father and that the only way to request emergency funds is to firstly source a loan herself, she hopelessly turns to desperate measures to keep her family afloat.
Friel is a lost television wonder, an actress that should not have had such a sporadic career. As Christina, she is all sinew and grinding teeth, smiles too wide and clothes too big in scenes of commonplace heartache.The silent distracted anxiety etched on her face as she watches TV with her child’s head in her lap, the palpitating, jittery worry she exudes in the blue morning light of her sleeping children’s bedroom, and that fizzing Northern feistiness leading to the shock at herself, at the depths she will plummet in trying to keep one step ahead.
This is a landscape of everyday suffering – of dealing with the distress of frantically renegotiating direct debits, the shame of damp clothes and the embarrassed faces of her children heading to school without lunches all shown with unflinching directness.
There is no sugar-coating, no hollow laughter, no Frank Gallagher can-drinking wisdom. This is ‘it’s grim up North’ writ large, even Happy Valley and This is England in their abject misery managed to have more sparky one-liners. McGovern should know that man can not live on Sean Bean’s sullen expression alone.
In fact, the only mild diversion comes from Sean Bean’s craggy, kindly priest, Fr Kerrigan, who almost takes on a saintly glow such is his generous involvement in his parishioners lives. Although he has his own fractured psyche to deal with that leaks out in a series of flashbacks to classrooms with paint peeling from the walls and snug family homes that cannot hide their pain.
In a piece that prides itself on its resolute authenticity, the clunky segue into the backgrounds of other characters lives as seen through the confessional box may be a dramatic contrivance too far. With the emphasis on faith, as Christina angrily lashes out at Fr Kerrigan, telling him that it was attending her child’s Holy Communion rehearsals that got her fired and beaten and who knows what next, it asks is there room for faith in lives that are absent of hope?
How can faith possibly give strength or peace in existences relentlessly ground to dust? It would have probably been more interesting (and more believable) if McGovern had eschewed the easy trope of the local priest and the church-going community to express this.
There may be nothing that original in Broken, but these are stories and images that need to be seen again and again to remind us that nothing much has really changed since the days of Cathy Come Home or Kes, and as Britain goes to the polls, it’s asking the important, timely question (that resonates close to home) - how long can lives remain so broken?