07 June 2009

Looking For Eric - Back of the net!

Looking For Eric  (15)

Dir. Ken Loach, 2009, UK, 116 mins

Cast. Eric Cantona, Steve Evets, John Henshaw, Stephanie Bishop

Films about the beautiful game have had a troubled history. From the undoubtedly bizarre thrill of watching Sylvester Stallone lining up alongside Bobby Moore and Pele in The Great Escape to lacklustre debacles such as Fever Pitch or When Saturday Comes, cinema has struggled to capture the sport’s emotional intensity, passion and endless possibilities. More recently the depressing sub-genre of hooligan film (Green Street, The Football Factory) has overshadowed the game itself on the screen.

Thankfully, with Ken Loach’s (himself a follower of non-league titans Bath City) masterful feel good character study Looking for Eric, footy fans finally have a film to be proud of.  And this is by no means at the exclusion of audiences more at home in the cinema than on the terrace. Football references are kept to a broad minimum and should not put off anyone unfamiliar with flat back fours, the offside rule, or relegation dogfights.

Steve Evets’ (think, Mancunian Harry Dean Stanton) terminally depressed and damaged postman Eric Bishop is in the middle of a nuclear strength mid life fall-out. We first meet him as he drives his van the wrong way round a busy roundabout oblivious to the oncoming traffic. As a compelling visual metaphor for his sad existence it grabs us from the off and doesn’t let go.

He left his first wife (Stephanie Bishop) 30 years ago in the grip of doubts and fears about becoming a father and remains painfully in love. The stepsons (Gerard Kearns, Stefan Gumbs) from his second marriage treat him with contempt and rule the roost at home.  On top of this he can’t afford to go and see his beloved Manchester United anymore. To be blunt, life for Eric sucks.

And where is the wayward genius Cantona in all this misery? Well, at the height of his despair Eric turns to his bedroom poster of the legend and asks him where it all went wrong.  To his understandable surprise the former Old Trafford hero appears, languidly stepping forth in a puff of spliff smoke (‘borrowed’ from the troublesome step-kids) and beguiling bon mots.

And from that point on King Eric acts as advisor, fairy godmother and personal trainer, constantly popping up offering sage advice and typically oblique poetics; cleverly sending up his public persona (I am not a man…I am Cantona, he announces, tongue firmly in cheek) and showing a nice gift for subtle comedy.  Eric’s desire to explain and understand his failings and goal of reuniting with the love of his life is carefully plotted by his charismatic namesake and together they make a genuinely winning double act.

Great support is provided by Eric’s workmates (particularly John Henshaw’s splendidly named Meatballs); the scene in the postal depot where they try to raise a smile from Eric by telling him god-awful jokes is a peculiarly British comedy gem.  Loach’s (at 73, surely worthy of ‘national treasure’ status) love of gallows humour is always near the forefront but it is without doubt his lightest film in tone; the ending is brilliantly upbeat and will leave a quiet grin on the face for many weeks afterwards. Some aspects of the crime sub plot in the second half of the film don’t always work but these are minor quibbles and as a plot device it necessitates the superb climax. A genuinely entertaining, funny and emotive British movie that fully deserves the many accolades that are sure to come its way. A film to be proud of… back of the net!

Looking For Eric is released on June 12