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

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Scream Queens: a melting pot of visual references to teen movies and horror films

The TV show’s parodic tone is mirrored in its knowing references to classics of the genres.

The American series Scream Queens is a strange beast: part college drama, part horror, part black comedy, it follows teenagers at a sorority house as a disguised serial killer begins a murderous rampage on campus, picking off a handful of characters each episode. The result: a parade of mean girls in prom dresses, covered in blood and guts. The makers of the show are keen to pay homage to the classics that have influenced them, and many viewers have pointed out deaths that reference major horror films: whether it’s freezing to death in a maze à la The Shining, getting a Hellraiser-esque makeover, or being hacked to tiny pieces in the style of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
But the show takes its teenage dream aesthetic just as seriously, and frequently acknowledges and subverts the tropes and quirks of the high school movie genre, from implicit nods to direct parodies.


Heathers (1988) is an obvious source for Scream Queens: following two outsiders as they systematically murder the most popular kids in school, it’s sardonic, garish and brutally violent. Sorority head Chanel forces her minions to call themselves Chanel #2, Chanel #3, and so on, an overt reference to Heathers's three queen bees (all called Heather). The makers of Scream Queens also repeatedly play with the film’s opening croquet scene in the show’s first episode.

The Craft

Only witches and ritual murderers are that into candles. The teen witch aesthetic of The Craft (1996) continually seeps in to the show, even if it’s at odds with the usual sugary-sweet palette.


It’s hard to think of pretty blonde girls in prom dresses covered in blood without thinking of Carrie (1976). The opening scene of Scream Queens sees a girl in a trance-like state with bloodied hands walking through a pastel party. But in Scream Queens, no one’s that bothered: “I am not missing 'Waterfalls' for this. 'Waterfalls' is my jam.”

Gossip Girl

Gossip Girl (2007-2012) spawned a thousand glossy, bitchy children, and Scream Queens could be its slightly unhinged niece. Chanel #1's silky, preppy wardrobe calls to mind some of Blair's pristine outfits (even if she'd never be seen dead in a pink faux fur jacket), and the sorority house, with its sweeping staircases, soft carpets and luxurious flower arrangements, is strikingly similar to the Waldorf’s apartment. One of the most obvious references to the show is Mrs Bean, Chanel’s maid, who follows in the footsteps of Blair’s maid Dorota, (right down to the old-fashioned uniform). While Blair grows incredibly close with Dorota (she’s maid-of-honour at her wedding), Chanel burns Mrs Bean’s face of in a deep-fat fryer. Lovely.

Mean Girls

Makeovers, hazing, and neck braces: there are several obligatory references to cultural touchstone Mean Girls (2004), including matching pink outfits and vengeful collages

The Powerpuff Girls

What happens when you mix sugar, spice, and all things nice with a mysterious and explosive chemical? Either the Powerpuff Girls, or the Chanels.

Now hear Anna discussing Scream Queens on the New Statesman’s pop culture podcast, SRSLY.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.