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'Liam' tells wrenching Irish tale

Saturday, October 20, 2001

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

You'll look a long way to find a more sober, somber tragedy in the classic Greek sense than "Liam," Stephen Frears' wrenching story of a 7-year-old boy and his working-class family caught up in the poverty and anti-Semitism of Depression-era Liverpool.


Rating: R in nature for language and brief nudity

Starring: Anthony Borrows, Megan Burns, Ian Hart, Claire Hackett, Russell Dixon

Director: Stephen Frears

Critic's call:


Cherubic Liam Sullivan (Anthony Borrows) is the quintessential innocent, no thanks to the terrifying preparations for his impending first confession and Communion. Eternal hellfire awaits him for the slightest infraction, of which, his priestly instructors convince him, he has committed more than one.

Things begin pleasantly enough with a beautifully atmospheric sequence of New Year's revelry, involving no more or less heavy drinking than usual in the Sullivans' tough shipyard neighborhood.

As if the community's pre-existing Catholic-Protestant hostilities weren't volatile enough, Liam's older sister, Teresa (Megan Burns), takes a maid's job in a wealthy Jewish household, which fuels the racial-religious resentments of unemployed Dad (Ian Hart) and long-suffering Mum (Claire Hackett).

Economic hardships and labor violence, combined with religious and political crises, conspire to put poor, stuttering, moon-faced Liam and his sister in the eye of a hurricane far beyond any adult's -- let alone child's -- control. Borrows and Burns turn in soulful performances that will break your heart, no less affecting than those of Hackett and Hart as their parents.

"Every sin you commit drives the nails deeper into the hands of Christ," says the priest, frighteningly portrayed by Russell Dixon. The Church itself, with its terrifying teaching methods, is even more frighteningly portrayed.

So is the British Union of Fascists, which Dad -- in his impotent rage -- fatally joins. (This aspect of the script recalls the real-life activity of actress Audrey Hepburn's father, an active English supporter of Hitler, who was arrested in 1939 and interned throughout all of World War II.)

"Liam," as fashioned by superbly accomplished director Frears ("My Beautiful Lauderette," "Dangerous Liaisons"), is a kind of Liverpudlian "Les Miz" -- more wrenching, if that's possible, than "Angela's Ashes" and more relentlessly realistic and disturbing. See it at your emotional risk but spiritual-historical gain.

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