Depressed and suicidal, Eric Bishop is a broken man. He is still filled with guilt, shame and sorrow after years ago having walked out on his daughter and his first wife. He is now living with two freeloading stepsons from another failed marriage and the two boys barely disguise their contempt for him. Worse still is that the older boy is getting very sociable with the local psychopathic gangster. Eric has little to live for except the company of his good spirited mates, who he works with at the local post office, and his memory of the glory days of football team Manchester United. The film’s working class characters, social realist style of filmmaking and general bleakness certainly recall many of the other films that director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty have been making together for over ten years, including It’s a Free World…, My Name is Joe and Sweet Sixteen. However, Looking for Eric begins to defy many of the expectations that you might have for a Ken Loach film when Eric Cantona, the French-born England football player who plays himself in the film, mysteriously begins appearing to give the other Eric advice on how to sort out his life.
Cantona’s appearances are never explained or rationalised (he could be a phantom, a hallucination or a projection) but his presence gives Looking for Eric a quirky comedic element that transforms it into a feel good film about taking charge of your life. Prior to playing himself in Looking for Eric, Cantona has had a career as an actor (including a role as the French ambassador in Elisabeth) and he has a natural screen presence. He plays himself with a gentle sense of self-parody, offering Eric lots of sage pieces of advice in the form of odd metaphors and often in French, much to Eric’s annoyance. Television actor Steve Evets portrays Eric with a tremendous amount of empathy and he is able to evoke the audience’s sympathy very quickly with just a look.
Along with Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, Loach’s previous Ae Fond Kiss… and many of Shane Meadows’s films, Looking for Eric is a more cheery contribution to English Miserablist cinema where the plight of the working-class is not all despair and disaster. There is a lot of hope in Looking for Eric and in particular Loach captures the joy and happiness that can be found by simply having a good group of friends who will look out for you. The only downside to Looking for Eric is that the big climatic event that the film builds to is entertaining but so unlikely that you do lose your suspension of disbelief. The film’s affirming message would have had more power had the resolution been more probable. Nevertheless, Looking for Eric is about a man who speaks to a football superstar that nobody else can see so perhaps demanding too much realism is unwarranted.