People can be broken physically, emotionally and psychologically and few go through life avoiding being harmed in some way. The 2012 film Broken, adapted from the 2008 novel by Daniel Clay, portrays many different ways humans can suffer. At the centre of the film is a coming-of-age narrative, about an 11-year-old girl known as Skunk (Eloise Laurence) who experiences the cruelty and unfairness of life when she witnesses an act of violence. Within Skunk’s own home and that of her two neighbours, in a small cul-de-sac in suburban England, people are being broken in different ways. As the film unfolds, seamlessly portraying the joy of childhood with the terror of a community made to feel vulnerable, Broken questions why people are damaged and how they can be healed. What emerges is a film that can be shocking, but also deeply comforting in its belief that the truehearted can prevail.
Harper Lee’s seminal 1960 classic To Kill a Mockingbird was a major influence for Clay when writing Broken and that influence is felt throughout the film. Like Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird Skunk lives with her older brother Jed (Bill Milner) and her father Archie (Tim Roth) who is a lawyer. Even the names of the key characters from Broken are similar to their counterparts in Lee’s novel. Another key similarity is the pivotal plot point involving a wrongful accusation of rape, with the introverted Rick Buckley (Robert Emms) being a composite of the falsely accused Tom Robinson character and the reclusive Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley character from To Kill a Mockingbird.
However, it would be a mistake to simply categorise Broken as a modern day To Kill a Mockingbird. The film uses the core characters and basic scenario to set up themes of injustice, family, community and the loss of childhood innocence, but Broken develops the themes and narrative in its own way to beautifully complement To Kill a Mockingbird rather than rehash it. Perhaps most interesting is that Skunk is the focal point throughout Broken rather than her father Archie. While both texts are from the point-of-view of the Scout/Skunk character, To Kill a Mockingbird is centred on Atticus Finch as the moral authority that drives the narrative, while in Broken Skunk is the moral centre. One of the few things that unites the characters in Broken is their affection and love for Skunk.
Although, while caring for Skunk is something most of the characters have in common, Skunk is let down by most of the men in the film at some point. Through experiencing first love, unrequited love and family members experiencing romantic love, she is left feeling hurt, betrayed and abandoned. She learns that her father and brother are sexual beings and this difficult realisation is part of her coming-of-age narrative. However, it is the different expressions of parental love that becomes the most crucial component to Skunk growing-up.
On the one hand Skunk sees the borderline psychotic protective parental love as demonstrated by the brutal Bob Oswald (Rory Kinnear). Fiercely protective of his daughters, whose behaviour suggests they need guidance rather than lenience, Oswald is like a defensive animal. He tears off his shirt before attacking, eats raw ham from the packet and lives in an unfinished house – it is literally a broken home. As a result of his monstrous and delusional protective behaviour, he has raised three similarly viscous daughters who have grown up to view the world with aggression and suspicion.
On the other hand, Skunk receives far more considered parental love from Archie, who is affectionate but also firm. Both Archie and Oswald are single fathers and both are shown to have a tremendous love for their children and fear seeing harm come to them. The difference is Oswald has become savage to the point of terrifying the community while Archie upholds the law, even to the point of assisting a romantic rival because it is the right thing to do. Considering others and responding rationally are viewed in the film as essential for civilisation to prevail.
Notions of what it means to love and what it means to be civilised are not the only grand themes in Broken, as it also explores the question of fate. One of the many strengths of the film is its redemptive undercurrent, where a tragic event places a character in a position where they have the ability to prevent tragedy for others. This in turn invites speculation about what events caused the tragedy in question in the first place, challenging the audience to consider the cause-and-effect relationship between the order of events in the film.
The non-lineal structure of the film furthers this inquiry into how the film is suggesting a relationship between the different events in the film. Most interestingly is the way the film covertly skips over particular events, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions about the aftermath before the film then goes into flashback to fill in the missing details. Sometimes the film crosscuts between the scene about to end and the scene about to start, creating unusual spatial and temporal links.
This fractured – yet highly coherent – approach to the narrative also gives the film an at times dreamlike quality to suggest it is a collection of memories that sometimes overlap. It is not clear if the suggested memories belong to Skunk or Archie, and it is made even more ambiguous by the presence of images depicting Skunk in the future. The end result is to present the period of time the film takes place in as a defining one for Skunk as she begins the not always pleasant transition into adulthood.
The film’s director Rufus Norris has a background directing theatre, yet displays considerable talent as a filmmaker in his approach to not just the unconventional editing, but other elements of film style such as the cinematography. During the early scenes of the film, the adult characters are frequently shot from Skunk’s height so that their heads are cut off by the top of the frame. In the scene where Skunk has her first kiss with her boyfriend Dillon (George Sargeant), the pair stand up without the camera following them so their heads are similarly briefly out of frame. The camera then pans up and the technique of viewing adults from below slips away from the film, suggesting Skunk’s entry into the adult world.
The design and style of the film is also carefully crafted to deliver Skunk’s perspective of a world that is harsh, but also full of childlike wonder. Norris uses an unusual blend of social realist style shots with moments that are almost neo-romantic. In particular, the junkyard where Skunk hangs out is filled with broken cars and yet filmed with warm and soft light to present her imaginative view of the yard. Tellingly, a place filled with broken objects is one that Skunk can see beauty in.
Broken is a film of thematic, narrative and stylistic complexity that manages to remain highly accessible. The theme of learning to grow up nobly in a world of unfairness is very effectively transposed from To Kill a Mockingbird, but Broken pleasingly takes its own direction to deliver a very moving look at parental love. While a character such as Archie is comparable to Atticus Finch in terms of honour and inner strength, making Skunk the focus of the story was an inspired decision. By framing such universal issues such as the power of forgiveness, redemption and love through a coming-of-age narrative of a generous and kind 11-year-old girl, Broken delivers a moving and thoughtful cinema experience.