British theatre director explores a new stage

By Peter Calder

The theatre is a fertile proving ground for British film directors. Peter Calder speaks to the newest debutant

Eloise Laurenson and Tim Roth star in Broken directed by Rufus Norris. Photo / Supplied
Eloise Laurenson and Tim Roth star in Broken directed by Rufus Norris. Photo / Supplied

In making the transition from stage to big screen, noted British theatre director Rufus Norris is following in some rather large footsteps. Many of the British film industry's foremost directorial talents - Sam Mendes, Stephen Daldry, Nick Hytner, Danny Boyle - all came from the theatre world.

"It's always been our primary mode of cultural storytelling," says Norris, down the phone line from his London home, "and that's why the theatre is often our way into film."

The 48-year-old's theatrical credits include a West End revival of Cabaret, a Broadway production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, starring Laura Linney, and an acclaimed stage reworking of Danish director Tomas Vinterberg's lacerating family drama Festen (The Celebration).

His debut film, Broken, adapts the 2008 novel of the same name about a single incident-packed weekend in a small North London cul-de-sac.

Its central character is an 11-year-old girl called Skunk (up-and-comer Eloise Laurence), who lives with her brother, her solicitor father (played by Tim Roth) and a live-in au pair. Across the street a kindly but backward 19-year-old, Rick, lives with his parents. And the third side of the dramatic triangle is the volcanically foul-tempered solo father of three seriously out-of-control teenage girls.

TimeOut: It's an actor-driven piece - and there's some sensational acting on display - but it has a contained, theatrical feel to it.
Rufus Norris: Well, to move into a new medium you know very little about and try and take on some massive, technically complicated epic would seem to be a little foolhardy, really. This was all quite tight, in one location, in one family, really. And when you put it that way, you are talking about the ingredients that can add up to a really good theatre piece. But I never thought about it as a theatre piece. It's controlled but not ambitious in its scale, because I didn't want to screw it up.

The title might seem to invite a metaphorical or even allegorical reading in which the street stands for a broken Britain. Is that too glib?
Well, it's not glib, but I think it's quite a dark interpretation. In the book, the word refers to a character - the character who gets the most broken. But, of course, the central role of the film is Skunk, this 11-year-old girl, and in some ways the film could be called Unbroken, because she survives all the various pressures put on her. I think it can be read in a number of different ways.

I struggled with the title, to be honest, because it gives it a dark, gritty, kind of social-realist feel before you've started. And in fact the film is more poetic than that and kind of lifts off partly because it is seen through the optimistic and joyful gaze of this 11-year-old girl.

That optimism comes though in the way the film is shot and lit. There's a honeyed sort of glow to it than makes it more Terence Davies than Ken Loach.
Yes, there's a sense that even in the dark place and the difficult experiences she is put through, her will to survive is born of the unconditional love she's surrounded by. I mean there is a deeper or broader meaning that one can read into it. The idea that our society is broken is something of a cliche now but there is some truth in it.

A lot of the film revolves around teenagers and I don't know about New Zealand, but teenagers are really demonised in our society. Successive governments have stripped away from the state the responsibility to provide the levels of community support we once took for granted. So a mini-community such as the one we have in the film can break down - with tragic consequences -without anyone realising and stepping in.

A lot of British critics have located this film alongside the kind of bleak working-class urban Britishness of say Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher) or Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank) but it seems to me it is far from being grim social realism.
Yes, it is. With social realism you are asked to believe in the whole thing and filmmakers don't give you anything that is unlikely. (In Hollywood, what comes out is always fantastically unlikely, of course). But in this film you move in a heightened reality. There are things that happen that are not realistic and it is very unlikely that this level of incident will occur in that single street in a given weekend but audiences believe it because it is a heightened reality.

The ending can feel melodramatic if you are seeing it through the prism of social realism, so it is a challenge. But it is not a documentary.

Who: Theatre-turned-film director Rufus Norris
What: Broken, starring Tim Roth (Pulp Fiction, Lie To Me) and Cillian Murphy (The Dark Knight, Inception) with a soundtrack by Blur's Damon Albarn.
In cinemas: May 16

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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