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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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