Looking for Eric (UK/Fra/Bel/Sp/Italy 2009)

Steve Evets as Eric the postie

Steve Evets as Eric the postie

The last Ken Loach film before this one (It’s a Free World, 2007) was released first on television in the UK and it dealt with the new brutalism of capitalism with its exploitation of migrant labour. For me it was the least enjoyable of the Loach team’s work in recent years. Looking for Eric is a return to mainstream Loach territory and a very enjoyable movie for a cinema visit. However, I guess that in the circumstances it is perhaps a little too ‘comfortable’ – although it has its moments in exposing current political issues. Perhaps it is the ‘happy ending’ and the football focus that has led some critics to see the film as a departure, a mainstream breakout film. I don’t think it’s either.

If you know Loach, I think that the two other films Looking for Eric most resembles are Raining Stones (1993) and My Name is Joe (1998). Raining Stones, written by the late and very great Jim Allen, is also set in Manchester with another well-meaning but hopeless working-class man this time caught in a spiral of financial doom. It is also one of the bleakest and funniest films to come out of the UK. My Name is Joe is a romance (one of Paul Laverty’s early scripts for Loach) bringing together a man seemingly trapped by his demons with a sensible woman from social services and set in Glasgow. If you’ve seen either of these films, you’ll not be surprised by what happens in Eric. Laverty has become a skilled scriptwriter and the whole thing works very well – although audiences will be puzzled by some of the relationships in Postman Eric’s dysfunctional family. (I’m grateful for an IMDB poster for explaining at least one plot point.)

Looking for Eric features a Manchester postman (brilliantly played by Steve Evets) who is helped out of his crisis of self-confidence by the appearance of the ex-Manchester United footballer Eric Cantona (playing himself – who could possibly impersonate him?). This is woven into the plot quite cleverly so that we understand why ‘little Eric’ might imagine himself talking to his idol. Don’t believe all those stories about this being a big departure for Loach. In 45 years he’s used all sorts of surrealist touches – remember the on-screen football score when the PE teacher pretends to be Bobby Charlton in Kes?

Cantona was famous in the UK for both his fantastic football skills and his assured way of dealing with the media via a series of wonderfully gnomic utterances – don’t leave the cinema before the end of the credits or you will miss Cantona’s most famous press conference. The film isn’t really about football, even if there are a few minutes of Cantona magic in video clips of his famous goals. Watching United usually gives me the same pleasure as root canal work at the dentist’s, but even I would admit that Cantona was a genius on the football field. Now he’s an actor and he brought the initial idea to Loach and Laverty. Cantona the alter ego offers sensible advice to Eric, both in terms of his relationship with his ex-wife and his problems with his stepsons. His most important advice is that Eric must rely on his teammates – the other posties who do care about him. What we see in the film is the ‘saving’ of little Eric when he takes the advice offered. The warmth of feeling and the humour in the film is there in most Loach-Laverty films, but in this case there does seem to be something that might be called a happy ending. However, along the way we do get a firm and convincing message about how solidarity and collective action is the way to solve problems.

I must mention Stephanie Bishop’s performance as Eric’s ex-wife, Lily. Loach’s films always feature inspired casting and Kathleen Crawford, based in Glasgow, has worked as casting director on the last few Loach features. She’s done a great job. All the cast are Mancunians, or at least Lancastrians, as far as I can work out. Stephanie Bishop has no previous credits but I thought she was terrific. As Loach says on the film’s website, casting an actor like John Henshaw opens up so many possibilities because he can switch from serious drama to broad comedy in a flash. He matches the performances of Ricky Tomlinson in previous films. He becomes the team leader of the posties – most of whom are played by comedians from local Manchester clubs. Overall, the policy of ‘local casting’ means that we do believe that all of this could happen in a ‘real’ community.

Only one negative came from the screening – the print. You can never tell with digital prints whether the fault was in the original footage, the conversion to digital or the projection itself and the computer, but several sequences were presented in a way that made me feel like I was watching the film through a pair of old tights. Since Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography is usually one of the pluses for a Loach film, this was a real disappointment. Still, it couldn’t prevent my enjoyment. If you have a choice, try to see the analogue print.

As usual, this Ken Loach film opened earlier and wider in France where it will end up earning considerably more than the £1 million it has so far earned in the UK.

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14 comments

  1. keith1942

    I was rather disspointed in the film, though it does have the qualities mentioned in the review. I do think the film’s resolution is a proble. It also reminded me of Raining Stones. What also struck me was the way that the plot used magical intervention for resolution. Raining Stones rather relies on the catholic church. It is difficult to think of Loach films with a happy ending that do not rely on such contrivance. Ae Fond Kiss was the only one I could think of.

    • venicelion

      I’m notoriously bad at remembering plot details and especially film endings. I think you are right to connect the resolution of Raining Stones and Looking for Eric but I think the connection is the threat posed to someone in the community (i.e. the hero) by criminals. I’m not sure that there is magical intervention in the latter – Cantona could be a figment of Eric’s imagination. The real agents of the happy ending are Eric’s mates aren’t they? I seem to remember the ending of Ae Fond Kiss as distinctly ‘open’ in the sense that someone must have been emotionally hurt by the resolution, since the family melodrama was essentially insoluble otherwise?

  2. keith1942

    Re Loach and happy endings. Ae Fond Kiss… ends with the reconciliation of the lovers, which I think is a fairly conventional happy ending. In Raining Stones Bob’s daughter successfully partakes her first communion, the loan shark has died and [crucially] the Parish Priest has pardoned Bob for what is, at a minimum, manslaughter.
    It is the latter which I think comes closest to Looking for Eric, where at the end of the film Eric Bishop has been reconciled with Lily, seen the local gangster, Zac, punished and silenced, and even enjoyed the [unlikely] reform of his sons.
    Both the latter films offer what I would think are relatively conventional happy endings, and rely [conventionally] on a degree of contrivance. I think that when Eric and his mates visit Zac’s house there is a slight continuity problem over the dog.
    More to the point, whilst this final act is delivered by a group of workers, it is in their roles as football fans. If religion was [and remains] the opium of the people, then sport is a modern equivalent. [Noam Chomsky is good on this].
    It is possible to read Eric Cantona as an extension of Eric Bishop, but I did not feel that during the film. And even is one accepts this, in films like Riff-Raff or The Wind That Shakes the Barley it is class conscious mates or comrades who provide the argument. In the latter film priests are happily absent.
    When I saw Looking for Eric at Bradford the guy in front was using his mobile phone whilst he bought a ticket. My prejudice was confirmed when he asked for the ‘Eric Cantona movie’! But I did wonder if this was just the start of a Catona film career.

    • venicelion

      At the end of Ae Fond Kiss the lovers are indeed reconciled, but the family melodrama is not. Casim’s parents feel that he has deserted them. His younger sister looks likely to follow him, but the happiness of his elder sister is seriously compromised. Is this a ‘happy ending’ or is it an open ending that comments on the difficulties that family relationships often encounter?

      I agree with the other points you make except that I think you misread the football context. The posties are not just football fans – they are specifically the fans of FC United, the team created and supported by fans in opposition to the Glazer takeover at Old Trafford (Manchester United was a club started originally by railwaymen at Newton Heath). In other words they are a footballing metaphor for collective action in the face of consumerist football culture.

      Cantona already has a significant film career doesn’t he?

  3. keith1942

    Looking for Eric

    I don’t think Ae Fond Kiss… is a family melodrama, I think it is a romance. The S&S review suggests a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story, which seems apt. The film leaves unresolved family conflicts by retreating into the personal world of the lovers.
    Re FC United, so is Cantona OK because he played for United before Glaser? I did not find the film clear on the point about the teams. It might be an idea to discuss in it the review?
    Even so, the film presents the group as football fans, an alternative identity. Football fans presumably find their supporter identity more rewarding than as exploited labour. But it is the labour that defines their social status and funds their supporter activities. Fandom would seem to ‘mystify’ their social status. I prefer Riff-Raff, where labour and its expropriation is central. There were only a limited number of scenes of Eric and his friends actually at work in this film. Apparently the P.O. refused co-operation, which seems odd. Maybe they were expecting a strike?
    And I think this is Eric Cantona’s first starring role. He clearly has had a major impact on the film. And for all his famed philosophising I don’t think he offers the sort of analysis that is usual in Loach films.

    • venicelion

      We’ll just have to disagree about Ae Fond Kiss –- I think the family relationships are too important to be simply background to the lovers’ story. Perhaps it’s more sensible to see the film as a melodrama/romance mix?

      I think Loach/Laverty go out of their way to explain the difference between supporting FC United rather than MUFC in the scene in the pub which includes the usual political speech. I agree that this is a different kind of politics than that directly referring to working for the Post Office, but it isn’t the first Loach film to do this. One of my early Loach favourites is the television play The Golden Vision about a group of Everton supporters. Loach is a football fan and he has typically found a way to make a political point about the current state of football. I suspect that you just don’t really enjoy football, Keith? I’m trying to think of the last Loach film to focus directly on what might be considered as traditional forms of working-class employment. I think that the last one would have been The Navigators?

      I guess that for most football fans, Cantona is ‘OK’ because he was a brilliant player who was both his own man and able to work for the team. I haven’t heard him speak about his politics as such, but he is clearly a Loach fan. According to IMDB, Cantona has appeared in around a dozen films. I’m not sure whether or not he has a bigger part in Looking for Eric than in the other films.

  4. keith1942

    It seems to me that the Ae Fond Kiss… is organised round the romantic couple. The film leaves the audience with them. Romances quite often leave other factors unresolved and focus only on the hero and heroine.
    As for Looking for Eric, I don’t think whether one likes football or not is the issue. It is how the game is plotted into the narrative and what the audience is expected to bring to the film. I noted the Public House scene, and I was aware that there was an argument going on about football commercialism. As I remember at the end of the Public House scene they are all watching a television transmission of a Manchester United European match, despite the argument. And I did not get a clear sense of the role of FC United as you explain it. I suspect viewers who are not conversant with British football will not have been left clear on this. I have looked at several reviews and none of those actually discuss the issue you describe. This despite the issue appearing to be an important part of the film. I also think Eric Cantona would distract from the issue. He was a Manchester United star player, and {I assume] recipient of large transfer fees. When did FC United actually start up? Because my sense would be that Manchester United was a large commercial football corporation well before the recent take-over, indeed probably in the time when Cantona played for the club.
    The other film that deals with football supporters is Loach’s concluding story in the portmanteau movie Tickets (2004). I thought the use of the football fans in the larger story was interesting and pointed.
    Certainly The Navigators is centrally about the labour process. But I think this also applies to It’s a Free World (2007). I thought this film was really interesting and distinctive in the way it treated the problem. Unfortunately, it was not possible to see it at the cinema in the UK.

    • venicelion

      I sometimes feel that there are aspects of many films that I don’t fully understand, so I can see your problem with the football issues in the film.

      A bit of history: FC United of Manchester to give the full title is a club that is completely owned by its fans. Anyone who wants to become a member can join for a fee currently of £10. Every member then gets one vote on the policy decisions of the club (see http://www.fc-utd.co.uk/membership.php).

      The club was formed in 2005 and there has indeed been a drift away of some of the original supporters but the club has still progressed very well with promotions so that they are now in the ‘seventh tier’ of English football. At the present rate of progress they could make League Two (the fourth tier) in a few more years. The scene in Looking for Eric in the pub is in some ways a comment on the supporters who are torn between the football itself and their antipathy to commercialism. (FC United are very well supported compared to other clubs at the same level.)

      Cantona was a ‘bargain buy’ for MUFC. Although he was well paid, I don’t think he ever earned the kind of money that has since gone to the Beckhams and Ronaldos of contemporary Premiership football. The fans understood this and that’s why there was more support for Cantona.

      Yes, I’d forgotten about Tickets. Scottish football is, of course, another story, especially for Celtic fans.

  5. Just Another Film Buff

    Nice review venice lion. I felt that the movie was both enhanced and killed by Laverty’s contribution. How beautifully and humorously he weaves two simple genre movies to create a lovely social portrait, and in the final act, he resorts to all-too-easy genre cliches and deus-ex-machinas. And not to mention, it runs the risk of glorifying violence (which may also be seen as communist in tone – Loach’s contribution?).

    • venicelion

      I’m so pleased that you’ve managed to see this. So few British films appear to get exposure in India. As you can see from my exchange with Keith above, this Loach-Laverty film has provoked a range of reactions. I’ve since seen it a couple of times more as part of study days for both school students and adults. My blog above was after the initial screening when I had still had some doubts. However, after a second and third screening (when I got a proper handle on several of the plot points) I’m now convinced that it is one of the films of the year.

      I don’t disagree with your observation that the film uses a contrived ending to resolve the narrative, but I don’t think this detracts from its central point. This is what I wrote as the conclusion to my notes for one of the study days:

      “Looking for Eric is perhaps a male melodrama in which the central character has suffered a loss of personal identity and consequently a deterioration in his emotional relationships. He ‘finds himself’ through a relationship with his fantasy idol Eric Cantona (whose famous philosophical statements turn out to be genuinely helpful) and the support of his more corporeal mates – his fellow postal workers and FC United of Manchester supporters.

      The subtle distinction between the corporate ‘Manchester United’ and the breakaway supporters’ team is as important as the endorsement of Cantona, the ‘anti-celebrity’ and friend of the fans. This is where the usual Loach/Laverty social/political concern now resides. It’s a long and enjoyable film which provokes a wish to know more about Lily – the woman Eric left 30 years ago and Sam, who will perhaps have the future that Eric missed out on when he ‘lost’ himself after Sam was born. Isn’t this an open ending?”

      So I don’t think this is an easy cop-out but a necessary melodrama finale in which the cathartic act is a symbolic destruction of the consumerist riches accumulated by a local criminal by an army of ‘Cantonas’. Well, that’s my reading anyway!

      Re your Loach and Laverty comments, I don’t think that you can separate the two in terms of politics – I’m sure that they work together because they share the same outlook. Ken, I’m sure, would call himself a ‘democratic socialist’ and certainly not a ‘communist’. In the sectarian world of British politics, ‘democratic socialist’ would be left of the old CP. The violence in the film as perpetrated by Eric’s mates is all against property isn’t it?

      • Just Another Film Buff

        Interesting. Cantona being a fan-friendly player makes it very interesting indeed. Then the socialist undertone becomes very prominent too. That said, the first two acts just swept me away. Loach and Laverty hilariously give a new spin to British kitchen sink dramas.

        One moment was truly shattering. Loach cuts from the scene Eric encounters Zac to the family lunch he has. In any other film this would have been to provide some relief. But here, this peaceful lunch notches up the tension manifold.

        And what do you think of Evets’ perf? I felt he did a great job with his vulnerability. Reminded me of Nasseruddin Shah in some ways…

  6. keith1942

    There are some interesting new comments, though I have some concerns about them.
    I think there are some confusion about political strands on the ‘British Left’. I assume ‘democratic socialist’ refers to the current organisation of which Loach is a member? And I don’t think there is an effective Communist Party in Britain today, just a few remnants hanging on from the past. I certainly do not think that ‘democratic-socialists’ fit to the left of the CPGB as it was in its hey-day. Apart from anything else, the CPGB changed its line several times. In the 1930s their politics were fairly radical, though their international line suffered from chauvinism. But the ‘British road to Socialism’ in the 1940s showed a distinct lurch to the right.
    I think such distinctions matter in relation to films by Ken Loach and his colleagues. There does seem to me to be a difference between the films made with, for example, Jim Allen and those made with Paul Laverty. Both work mainly within melodrama. And Laverty doe emphasise ideas about community. However, I think Allen places more emphasis on the proletarian aspects.
    This seems to me to come out in other films as well. In my reservations about Looking for Eric I referred to the earlier film, Riff-Raff. Both films have a central male character who has a problematic relationship with a woman. And in both films the woman’s point of view is subordinate to that of the man. Also in both films the personal plot is worked out within the context of a strong male group. The difference is that Riff-Raff places much more emphasis on labour: there are, for example, more scenes involving work. Crucially for me the resolutions also differ. In Riff-Raff the climax act takes place at work and is an act of rebellion against exploitation. In Looking for Eric the climatic act takes place away from the work situation and only seems to involve this marginally. At the end of Riff-Raff I feel that the enemy is the exploitative employer, only present through the control exercised by the foreman. In Looking for Eric the enemy is a drug baron. A fairly stereotypical villain, and one that most of the audience will take against.
    Returning to the world of politics, this is the sort of approach I identify in democratic socialists. Targeting either social undesirables or socials ills rather than the social relations that give rise to them. Whilst there is a strong element of reformism in the 1930s CPGB their class analysis was clear and to the point.

    • venicelion

      I’m not going to debate the history of the Communist party in the UK during the 1930s and up to the 1950s. You probably know much more about it than I do Keith. I can only comment on my experience of what I took to be the influence of CP members in the UK teaching unions when I encountered them in the 1970s and 1980s. They were generally viewed as to the right of the other left groups and obstructive to attempts to pursue policies that were internationalist, anti-sexist and anti-racist etc. I haven’t followed all of Loach’s public statements about his political position but he has on several occasions demonstrated his support for socialist parties that claim to be to the left of the Labour Party without being associated with the CP. I just wanted to make this clear for readers outside the UK. I don’t think calling yourself a ‘democratic socialist’ is a fudge – I’m taking it to be an attempt to reclaim the title of socialist without importing the baggage associated with the history of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

      I hope that we’ve agreed to disagree about our readings of Looking for Eric. I think that my only other concern about the film was the marginalisation of the female characters. What arose from discussion with audiences on study days was a clear statement by some of the women in the audience to the effect that they did not feel marginalised by the narrative because they were interested in following the emotional struggles of the central character (and specifically in relation to his sons). I’m sure there are other responses as well.

  7. keith1942

    Re the question of ‘Communists’. I think claiming to be left of the CPGB was a sort of compulsion response in the UK: rather like claiming every young director is an auteur. However, I think political identities are an important factor in a film’s context. Marx and Engels in their famous Manifesto deliberately refer to Communists, who are “distinguished from other working-class parties by this …the abolition of bourgeois property.” I think, certainly in the UK, that the term socialist usually refers to ‘ameliorating’ this basic contradiction.
    In terms of Ken Loach one of the continuing strands in his work [several writers have commented on this] is the issue of ‘betrayal’: famously in Days of Hope, but is also a factor in Land and Freedom and The Wind that Shakes the Barley. This tends to distract the focus from the underlying system of exploitation.
    The history of Communists organisations in Europe is more than ‘baggage’. There are inmportant lessons there.
    As for gender, this seems to be more of a problem in some of Loach’s films than in others. I noticed venicelion referred to ‘male melodrama’ in relation to Looking for Eric. It is possible that the sort of generic effect is at work here?

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