Reviewed: Broken and Robot & Frank

Too Close for comfort.

Broken (15); Robot & Frank (12A)
dir: Rufus Norris; dir: Jake Schreier

Hard-bitten residents of Brookside Close or Albert Square would sell up in no time after a weekend in the cul-de-sac at the centre of the British drama Broken. From the moment 11- year-old Skunk (Eloise Laurence) witnesses one of her neighbours being walloped by another while in the middle of washing his car, the misfortune does not abate.

At least a soap opera has the luxury of spreading its quota of sensationalism over many years. Concertinaed into a time span of mere days and distributed among only three households, the litany of suffering in Broken can appear hysterical. Instances of teenage pregnancy, GBH and murder may give a kick to the interlinking stories but stubborn pessimism alone cannot render the film any more authentic than the fluffiest Richard Curtis romcom.

I don’t know whether David Cameron’s opportunistic sound bite about “broken Britain” inspired Daniel Clay, who wrote the novel on which Brokenis based, but its disapproving tang lingers over the portrayal of the Oswalds, one of the film’s three families. The demands of raising alone a trio of feisty daughters has transformed parenting for Bob Oswald (Rory Kinnear) into a kind of contact sport: when he isn’t seizing erroneously on hints that one of his girls has been abused, he is clutching his offspring in a group hug that’s more rugby scrum than embrace.

Next door live the Buckleys (Denis Lawson and Clare Burt) and their adult son, Rick (Robert Emms), who suffers from an unspecified mental illness that in plot terms has a price beyond rubies.

Rick can be used by the movie as a symbol of childlike innocence but his disability also makes him conveniently unpredictable when proceedings need to be nudged toward the tragic. Who needs specifics about his condition when he is such a boon to the plot’s volatility levels?

It is behind the middle-class Cunningham family –which includes Skunk and her solicitor father, Archie (Tim Roth) – that the filmmakers throw the weight of their sympathies. The relationship between Skunk and Archie is delicately played by Roth and the emphatic newcomer Laurence, on whom the director Rufus Norris lavishes enchanted close-ups. How much braver if the superficially brutish Oswalds had been the recipients of this directorial favouritism, rather than the sensitive family that none of us would mind living next to.

But then Broken takes the easy way out at every opportunity. The fussy, over-composed shots scream artiness; a semaphore score, all plaintive pianos and ambient echoes, steers every scene.

The film makes a meal out of some routine chronological disruptions that have been done more skilfully by Gus Van Sant (in Elephant and Last Days) or Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel). Norris is the sort of director who puts his stamp ostentatiously on every shot, even if it means stomping the life out of the film in the process.

Robot & Frank, on the other hand, is a tonic of a film: it’s all understatement. The whimsical but whip-smart tone suggests a liveaction version of a Pixar movie. Indeed, the story plays like a hybrid of Up and Wall-E. Frank (Frank Langella), is an ageing former jailbird losing his memory and his grip on the modern world. The local library is being digitised and skinny one-person mini-cars zip along the country roads; now his son Hunter (James Marsden) has bought him a robot butler that Frank is convinced will murder him in his sleep.

This being the territory of the buddy movie, rather than techno-horror, it’s no surprise that Frank develops some respect for his domestic droid, which has a primitive, retro-futurist look: black visor, Star Wars stormtrooper bodywork, hands poised in anticipation of its next task. (His cooing voice is provided by Peter Sarsgaard and sounds like HAL 9000’s kid brother.)

The parity between the two characters is nicely drawn, with the crisp whiteness of Frank’s hair and billowy shirt echoed in his nameless sidekick’s ensemble. It is the discovery that the robot is capable of lying, or at least creative deception, which really piques Frank’s interest.

And while the project he devises for the pair of them – a neighbourhood jewel heist – is enjoyably playful, it is only the catalyst for the film’s philosophical enquiries about the importance of memories, ethics and imagination in defining identity.

“Robot” is more than the help; he’s a mirror for Frank’s tentative sense of self. No wonder Frank can’t bear it when this new best friend admits: “I know I’m not alive – I’m a robot,” or when he exhorts him to wipe his memory files to remove any evidence of the heist. It’s too near the knuckle, too close to the motherboard.

The joys of Robot & Frank are numerous. They include the uniformly unforced performances: Langella is both bear-like and elegant, and there is tender work from Susan Sarandon as a gentle, near-obsolete librarian. The visual style is equally subtle, relying for its charm on simple incongruities: the robot watering serenely among the tomato plants or donning a cloak during a nocturnal burglary so that its armour doesn’t gleam in the moonlight.

The plotting isn’t perfect; for all the technological advances, the police appear to have forsaken old-fashioned fingerprinting. But the elegiac mood ranges over pertinent concerns for the present and the future, as well as the trepidation of those who fear they may get lost somewhere in between.

Frank Langella stars in "Robot & Frank" - a hybrid of "Up" and "Wall-E".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

David McNew/Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.