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Bad Upholstery & Vacant Silences: Samantha Morton's The Unloved Reviewed
Hannah Gregory , May 13th, 2010 10:01

Hannah Gregory finds much to laud in Samantha Morton's gritty directorial debut

She's a bit of an angel, really, Lucy Manvers. We first view the 11-year-old protagonist of The Unloved from above, sprawled at the foot of her staircase. Light streams onto her small body and the crummy red carpet of the terraced house's hallway. Throughout Samantha Morton's directorial debut, Lucy will be softly lit and clear-eyed, observing and almost mute.

We next encounter Lucy's Dad (Robert Carlyle). He is riled by the fact that she's lost the money he has given her to buy his cigarettes; he's then further riled by her lack of explanation, by her silence and meagre presence before him. He warns her he is angry, and he takes out the belt. The rest we hear but don't see. We wait outside the living room door whilst he takes out all his rage. We learn how she came to be sprawled at the bottom of the staircase, how she will come to live in the care home.

The Unloved is a social commentary, a call to action, and an exposure of one child's route-to-escape fantasy. Lucy's character is modelled in part on Samantha Morton herself. The acclaimed actress grew up in the care homes of Nottingham following the abuse of her father. Morton attended Youth Drama workshops in the county, a positive distraction from drugs and their tied-up crimes, and it is from these drama workshops that she chose to cast her teenage leads. Though for some of the minor characters' roles, this inexperience shows, the performances of both Lucy (Molly Windsor) and her care home roommate (Lauren Socha) - a bolshy 16-year-old who lays in bed getting high on aerosols and shouts off her mouth in sarcastic Notts dialect - are convincing and unaffected, perhaps because they don't have to affect that much here. Morton herself has been drawn to razor-edge roles: a drug addict, a prostitute, a car thief.

But being close to the issues at hand does not, necessarily, a successful drama make. The idea that insight into a situation or location is more objective and enlightened when seen from afar is well accepted. Yet the outsider's viewpoint has been criticised in the fields of film deemed 'social realist' - we should not be made to feel a high-faluting voyeur, nor a grit-hungry, but clean-living, viewer. The banner of ‘British Social Realism' - though not always a useful catchall - is hard to avoid in the context of The Unloved. The film's voicing of social dilemmas in regional dialect, its confrontation of violence and engagement with a deprived urban setting, follow the characteristics of a host of cutting or heart-aching British films, from Ken Loach's Kes (1970) to Mike Leigh's Naked (1993). When one's subject is behind-doors violence and defenceless childhoods, the idea of any kind of omniscience is problematic.

It is regarding vantage points - how we are made to see, where our line of sight is placed - that Morton finds a stable position as a director, and sets The Unloved apart from such a lineage. With one foot in the semi-derelict landscape of her youth, and the other in her adult existence of fictionalised film, she oversees a representation that is not sensationalised, but sensitive.

Morton's is not a rags to riches story, exactly, and neither is Lucy's. The director wished to make the drama as an exposure of the British care system, and as a reminder of the violence that takes places against children, violence that remains largely removed from the public eye. Asking Toni Grisoni - who adapted David Peace's Red Riding for television audiences - to write the screenplay, The Unloved was first screened terrestrially in 2009, and has now been released on DVD (ICA Films). Morton wanted to capture a young TV audience, just as growing up in Thatcherite Britain she had watched Ken Loach's dramas on the box – a natural natural double bill with the news. But as the film's characters well know, living rooms can be restricting. If Morton first sought a ground-level engagement, televising her picture for mass viewing, the film has as much of a cinematic scope, as a TV-series ethos.

Panoramic establishing shots set up the unremarkable city-scape as a setting of poetic resonance, recalling the Nottingham of Tony Richardson's _Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner _(1959) for post-industrial times. A firm sense of place is established as Lucy strolls past modernist multi-storeys, clocking the rooftops as dawn comes. Banal landmarks – bus stations and video arcades, subways and shopping centres – provide a temporary respite from the claustrophobia of the care-home. Whilst the social topography of the city is depressed, the film frequents its rundown fabric to present a site of exploration, even freedom.

Here, realism breaks for fantasy, for Lucy is a young girl, whose vulnerability would ordinarily be underlined by such "lonely walking". In the open-air, we catch the horizons of Lucy's wandering mind, whilst in the interior realms of the home, we look over her shoulder, confronted in close-up by the shady closets that are meant to protect yet also trap her.

Like Angela Arnold's countering of working class bleakness via colour and sound design in Fish Tank (2009), for Morton, cinematic enhancement creates an otherworldly chamber for Lucy's disconnected existence. The heightened sound of Colleen's circularly-sampled chimes augment the girl's reality into dream-space, whilst at a wasteland rave, Patrick Wolf's escapades of electro see in the morning - again akin to the release that Arnold's protagonist seeks through dancing in Fishtank.

Lucy is the spectator of her own existence – a retreat into quiet observation that sometimes occurs after cases of child abuse - and we are privileged with a view of this existence through her very eyes. However as the girl rides the bus away from her mother's house, torn from home and alone once again for the film's final scene, the camera is turned back around to face her. On the importance of walking away from social dramas with unanswered questions, Mike Leigh commented: "This is part of the process of politics, of humanity coping with its systems, organisations, and ways of surviving". In The Unloved, Morton paints one child's way of surviving, and as we ride away on the bus with Lucy, we are faced not with resolution, but with bad upholstery and the vacant silence of an angelic face, calling out for questioning.