Doggedly manipulative and yet consistently affecting, Broken piles on the miserablism to almost unbearable effect. Working from Daniel Clay’s novel, director Rufus Norris recounts the tumultuous coming-of-age of an open-hearted 11-year-old girl (Eloise Laurence) who lives in a North London cul-de-sac. An opening scene in which Rory Kinnear’s punch-happy father attacks Robert Emms’ mentally handicapped simpleton proves a bit of stunning out-of-the-blue violence. That brutality is soon revealed to be a natural facet of the milieu, which is populated by angry, depressive working-class people trying to mend what can’t be set right. While Tim Roth’s father struggles to get over his wife’s abandonment, Cillian Murphy’s teacher tries to win back the heart of Zana Marjanovic (especially once she becomes involved with Roth), and Laurence attempts to navigate burgeoning romantic feelings—and ensuing questions and fears about sex—with boyfriend George Sergeant.
Norris begins by blending Laurence’s past, present, and future via Roth’s memories and fantasies, and that fragmented structure drives Broken. Per its telling title, the film splinters its narrative, both to create dramatic friction and, more fundamentally, to convey the shattered condition of its characters. While this tack is more than a tad heavy-handed, it also results in a series of beautifully evocative sequences that capture Laurence’s simultaneous agony and yearning. Though more than one composition visually beheads actors at the very moment of joy, the film nonetheless maintains glimmers of hope amid the confusion and gloom that encompass these figures, left to punch, scream, and wail at the circumstances that undermine their tenuously stable lives.
Overkill is a recurring problem for Broken, which doesn’t know when to quit—especially in a climax that, unsurprisingly, given the preceding bleakness, dives headfirst into morbid territory. More problematic, however, is that much of the tragedy feels unearned, especially since some of these wounded individuals—in particular Kinnear’s rage-aholic father, who can’t go five minutes without punching someone—aren’t fleshed out enough to carry the weight of their stories’ sorrow. And yet even if some of the players never transcend two dimensions, there’s a grace to Norris’ overarching, expressionistic portrait of the way regret, resentment, and fury often conspire to foster only more of the same. Everything culminates with a closing sequence of shared father-daughter catharsis that shamelessly but effectively tugs at the heartstrings.