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Not a Care in the World

TELEVISION REVIEW | 'THE UNLOVED'

The-unloved-s1e1-20090506164033-1_625x352
Channel 4

Lucy (Molly Windsor) doesn’t say much, because she is too busy watching. She has learned to keep her own counsel, to follow closely what is happening around her and to pay attention to all the clues she can pick up. She lives with her father (Robert Carlyle), who clearly loves her but who equally clearly isn’t a good dad. When she comes back empty-handed from an errand, he beats her with his belt. We hear the beating, but don’t see it — but we do see Lucy lying in a stairwell for a night and a day, unable to move. Once she recovers, Lucy has the composure to go to school, sit through classes and eat a hot lunch before telling her teacher what has happened.

Lucy is known to social services. Her previous foster family isn’t available; and when she asks her social worker why she can’t live with her mother (Susan Lynch), the question is dodged. She is welcomed into a noisy children’s home where — like Lucy — we see the children’s faces and personalities clearly, but the adults are headless, wah-wah-wah blurs as in Charlie Brown. It’s days before anyone thinks to buy Lucy some clothes other than her school uniform, and a further while before someone suggests that Lucy really should be going to a new school by now. When the social worker comes back to check in, the conversation begins with an explanation of her gas mileage expenses.

Lucy never cries, although she hardly smiles either. She works hard to be good, and to please the adults around her. Ms. Windsor projects intelligence, self-containment and a desperate wish to belong. She asks probing questions about her social worker’s personal life, and watches her roommate Lauren (Lauren Socha) closely.

This is dangerous, though: Lucy’s about 11, and Lauren is about 16. While Lucy is carefully expressionless, Lauren is indiscriminately angry — although unfailingly kind to the younger girl. It soon becomes clear just how much Lauren has to be angry about. But Lauren is older and supposed to take responsibility for her own actions. Whether or not this is fair is not the point.

Director Samantha Morton has never made a secret of the fact that she was brought up in foster care, although she rarely discusses her personal experiences. Other British celebrities such as Goldie and Kerry Katona have spoken more openly about their time in care. The only American celebrity that comes to mind who did the same is Marilyn Monroe. But details such as the gas mileage make it clear “The Unloved” was made with insider knowledge.

At the moment, the British care system is under close scrutiny: In 2007, 17-month-old Peter Connelly (a k a Baby P) was murdered by his mother, her boyfriend and his brother despite frequent monitoring by social and medical workers. Such things were not meant to be possible after the 2000 murder of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié, when the entire British social-care network was revamped after it became clear all the social and medical workers that Victoria met — rather than do something about her visible abuse — had passed the buck and hoped for the best. The best seems hard to come by: What is known as the Edlington torture case (two brothers in care, aged 10 and 11, sadistically and sexually attacked two boys their age before leaving them to die) is further recent proof the system isn’t working. Everyone agrees something must be done.

The adults in this movie are less interested in doing the right things for the kids than in coming up with elaborate reasons why it’s more important to do the right things for themselves. The workers in the home are for the most part kind but disinterested. The police pick up Lauren and Lucy at one point; the officers mean well, but their chat about Christmas gifts is insensitive in the extreme. Later, Lucy finds her dad in a pub; when she sits down, he bolts for the bar. Braced for another rejection, it’s a huge relief when he comes back with a glass of lemonade. The hug he then gives her is the warmest thing in the film. Despite their failures as parents, Lucy’s parents do love her, but can’t or won’t explain why they can’t step up.

Most of the shots are carefully angled from the child’s point of view, so that adults loom out of the top of the frame and smaller details take on bigger importance. The external shots of the unnamed city have lower angles, so hills and chimney tops tower over Lucy as she walks coatless around the town. The film was shown on British television last fall, where the commercial breaks damaged the careful pacing and the slow build-up of the mood. It should do better now that it can be seen as a whole.

Mr. Carlyle always makes interesting choices, and he brings a sincerity and intelligence to the film that makes the father a loser rather than a bastard. We never get to see Lucy’s mother as deeply; after this and “The Scouting Book for Boys,” Ms. Lynch might want to have a talk with her agent. Lynne Ramsay’s “Morvern Callar” — in which Ms. Morton starred — is a clear influence, especially the fairground scene where there is a great shot of Ms. Socha with one of those glow-stick things in her mouth. However, less people know the book by Alan Warner made explicit Morvern’s childhood in care; her detachment and refusal to take responsibility for her boyfriend’s choices follow. Ms. Ramsay chose not to spell out what her characters were thinking; we were left to watch, wonder and worry.

In her acting, Ms. Morton has earned two Oscar nominations for her ability to express a great deal through very little. But in her directing, Ms. Morton has chosen to be a bit more obvious, with her title, use of music and a few flashbacks. These choices are understandable in a debut film, and more importantly don’t detract from its overall effect. Now we have an accurate feeling of what it must be like to be a bewildered child in the foster-care system, without stability, possessions or even a safe bed to sleep in. Everything Ms. Morton has done in her career has brought her to making this film. Even if she never directs again, “The Unloved” will stand as an intelligent achievement.

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