- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 6, 2001

''Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood," wrote Frank McCourt in "Angela's Ashes," which was transposed faithfully to the screen almost two years ago by director Alan Parker.
The specter of the miserable Irish Catholic childhood also haunts the new Stephen Frears movie "Liam," which observes the privation and despair that demoralize an Irish working-class family in Liverpool, England, in the late 1930s.
The title character, Liam Sullivan, is the youngest member of the family, a 7-year-old boy who figures prominently in episodes devoted to a hellfire Catholic indoctrination from a glowering teacher (Anne Reid) and priest (Russell Dixon) as he prepares to celebrate a First Communion with other parochial school classmates.
Liam's watchfulness and shyness are exacerbated by a stammer, which poses a somewhat artificial technical problem for Anthony Borrows, the beguiling child cast as Liam. Nevertheless, Liam's struggles with dogma prove a more amiable subject than the home front, which is jeopardized by the ignorance and bitterness that overwhelm the man of the house, Ian Hart as Dad, when he loses his job at a shipbuilding factory.
Unlike the incorrigibly improvident father of "Angela's Ashes," Mr. Hart's character reacts to his plight by embracing political fanaticism. He joins Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists and becomes a terrorist as well as a ranter.
The system of straitjacket coincidences devised by writer Jimmy McGovern doesn't leave the family with much hope of salvation. The principal breadwinners in the family become the oldest son, Con (David Hart), a house painter, and teen-age daughter Teresa (Megan Burns), who gets a housemaid's job with a well-to-do Jewish family, in part by concealing her Catholicism. As fatalistic melodrama would have it, the owner of the shipyard is the spouse of the woman who hires Teresa as a domestic. When Dad turns to violence, his daughter is in the line of fire. The painful consequences are close-knit to a fictionalizing fault. The movie leaves you in state of post-traumatic confusion, uncertain about the costs to Teresa and everyone else.
Both the social and domestic settings remain superficial to a grievous fault. Numerous relationships and attitudes are difficult to sort out. For example, Dad fumes about Irish immigrants almost as much as he scorns the Jews. Presumably, these newcomers make job-seeking and job security even more precarious. But since Dad must be the son of Irish immigrants, the grievance could use a little more clarification and discussion.
Con's life outside the home is ignored completely, leaving Teresa and Liam to carry the show. Although the mother of the house, Claire Hackett as Mum, gets an argumentative profile, she dwindles away as a domestic powerhouse while Dad is fitting himself for a black shirt. If this conversion experience prompted an edifying wrangle or two, we don't seem to overhear them often enough or decisively enough.
Mr. McCourt's father excelled at disappearing acts. Dad Sullivan disgraces his family by going public with his prejudicial and vindictive sentiments. In an excruciating interlude, he wrecks the First Communion service for everyone by interrupting the priest to complain about the costs imposed on poor families by church celebrations, then veers off into an anti-Semitic tirade. The genuine hardships he experiences don't seem to be appreciated by either writer or director. They appear eager to get to the point where he's a fascist crackpot and firebrand, so incensed that he could maim one of his own in a fit of fury.
Under the circumstances, it is almost a relief to attend catechism classes with Liam. One grows perversely fond of the doomsday intonations of Miss Reed and Mr. Dixon, who sustain a funny sort of intimidating rapport while pretending to terrify the youngsters.
Liam's stammer even has a recurrent comic function: It prolongs his confessions of trifling misbehavior in a way that exasperates the listener and brings out a certain cynical mercy, if only to end the ordeal. To his credit, Liam's confessor also clarifies a point about anatomy that has the boy confused, in part due to untutored browsing in art books that glorify female nudity.

One Star
TITLE: "Liam"
RATING: R (Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor; fleeting nudity; systematic ridicule of Irish Catholic dogma, circa the late 1930s)
CREDITS: Directed by Stephen Frears. Written by Jimmy McGovern. Cinematography by Andrew Dunn.
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

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