Tuesday, 16 June 2009

When the seagulls follow the trawler...

I'm just going to come straight out with it: football doesn't really appeal to me. Barring an oh-so-brief and oh-so-arbitrary childhood flirtation with Liverpool - I think I just liked red, and my older cousins had told me that Manchester United fans were only glory hunters - it has mostly just seemed to me to be a bunch of men in shorts, running up and down after a ball. I could explain to you the offside rule in theory, but not identify it in practice. It's safe to say that the communal bonding aspect of the beautiful game has bypassed me nigh-on entirely.

Good thing, then, that Looking for Eric isn't just a film about football. It is a film about football - and a poignantly nostalgic one at that - but it's also a film about many other things: love, fear, inspiration, hope and (whisper it) redemption. Oh, and Eric Cantona; he's more of a metaphor, though. Inner strength and all that.

The concept is an interesting one. A postman (named Eric, conveniently) is struggling to come to terms with the fact that he's left with nothing, not even the respect of his stepsons. One of whom is harbouring a gun for the local hardman. So he repeatedly hallucinates his hero, Eric Cantona, who helps him to work through it all and get himself back onto his feet.

Having someone, especially someone with as much cultural baggage behind him as Cantona, play a large cameo role - indeed, one which forms the driving force of the entire plot - is always risky. But here Loach pulls it off successfully, incorporating the audience's expectations of the footballer into the screenplay in an arch manner; it's funny, but always manages to fall the right side of ridiculous.

Part of this success also comes from the characterisation of the protagonist. Though ultimately flawed, Eric Bishop is easy to empathise with; he's both heartbroken and heartbreakingly human. Steve Evets occasionally plays him a little flat in tone, but for the most part he's not in the least difficult to emotionally invest in.

This is helped by Loach's realistic filming style, contrasting the absurdity of Cantona as a spiritual guide with the mundanity of everyday Manchester existence. The film's climax, while a little too drawn-out, is the perfect realisation of this - a hundred-odd pseudo-Cantonas storming the palatial house of a tyrannical gang-man in a show of fan solidarity.

Original and emotional, and somehow, incredibly, approaching believable: yet another triumph for Film4 Productions. It'd be hard for even a non-football fan to walk away from Looking for Eric unmoved.


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