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Looking For Eric

June 22, 2009
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Richard Thompson sang, “There’s a love you can’t survive / And it burns you up inside”. Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) has bought into this philosophy wholeheartedly, despite his heartache lasting 30 years, and now, weary and run ragged by life’s endless obstacles he seems a broken and dispirited man. Small wonder then that he steps fully formed and real into the latest Ken Loach film, the master of grimy social realism plucking another beaten-up loser from the gloomy milieu of modern life and giving him a good kicking to make a point.

Like Peter Mullen in My Name is Joe, or Bruce Jones in Raining Stones, Evets is painfully perfect, a wrecked and dented little soul beset on all sides by the iniquities of pretty much bloody everything that hoves into view. He has a crappy job as a postman, a tip of a house and two reckless and seemingly lost stepsons who treat him with contempt. But his deepest scar is for Lily, the girl he panicked over and left all those years ago, and whose memory he keeps in stasis buried in a trunk filled with too-painful-to-touch memorabilia.

What he manages to snaffle, unbelievably, but probably due to one too many sneaky tokes on his kids’ weed stash, is a little bit of advice from King Eric himself. Cantona. Ooh, and indeed, ahh. Yes, that Cantona. Appearing in his room as he contemplates darkly on where his life has taken him, little Eric is suddenly presented with his hero, King Eric. Cantona becomes Eric’s confidante, his guide, a trusted friend and teacher.

At first, Eric is bemused and worried (“I’m still getting over the sardines thing” he groans, referring to Cantona’s famously obtuse and baffling comment to the press in 1995 when asked for a quote following his kung fu kick on a racist fan), but gradually the idle idol wins him over with some genuinely touching aphorisms; when Eric contemplates suicide, he firmly but clearly states, “we always have more options than we think”. When asked if his first love might hate, or worse, feel ambiguous towards him, Cantona looks into his wine glass and answers in French. After much pleading, he tells Eric, “the noblest vengeance is to forgive”. Eric takes this to mean that Lily may have forgiven him, but we know that it also means he must forgive himself.

Cantona is brilliant in this sidekick role. He chivvies Eric along with flair and brio, never once losing his mystique as the unknowable thinker, but also managing, in one fantastic moment of pure comedy genius, to puncture the pomposity just enough to ground him for a moment. Talking about the pain of the nine month suspension after the kung fu incident, Eric thinks it’s about time he showed his hero a little sympathy: “sometimes we forget you’re just a man,” he says, with genuine concern. He is met with that impassive gallic slab of a face; “I am not a man. I am Cantona.” The timing before he cracks into a smile is the best you’ll see in the cinema all year.

I could have watched this odd little double act for hours, but, as with Mike Leigh’s conscience wobble in the middle of the otherwise sublime Happy-Go-Lucky, where he suddenly remembered he needed to ‘say’ something and so veered off on a ten minute schtick about homelessness, Loach also wakes up and realises that fuzzy and funny comedy romance isn’t going to be enough. And so, off we go, but with less restraint than Leigh, into a long and ultimately quite grim treatise on gun crime in Manchester. This injection of plot is so jolting it manages to derail the film for almost a third of its length, and is, for a period, genuinely distressing. Obviously, it’s a subject that should and must be discussed, but it slams into the wonderful first part of the film so hard as to leave you seriously disoriented.

Ignoring a few almighty plot holes with a casual wave of his hand, Loach tacks on a feel good coda, but it doesn’t really restore the movie back to the simpler and more engaging story of Eric rediscovering his purpose. It’s odd that just as the audience think they might have found Eric, and enjoyed searching for him, the director seems so eager to punch them into submission with rather too much of his accustomed and probably predictable social commentary. And if that isn’t the ending you wanted or hoped for, well, don’t blame me.

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