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11looking-for-eric

Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric looks set to be one of his most successful films to date. Yes, the star attraction of Eric Cantona will bring hordes of Loach virgins to screens up and down the country, but more than that, its optimism and unqualified comedy make it a highly palatable commercial entity in its own right. I duly found it hilarious and heart-warming in equal measure and I would recommend it, but my enthusiasm is not without some reservations.

Loach has been making didactic, uncompromising and often brutal realist cinema for 40 years, so he’s entitled to something of a departure. Critics have acknowledged that the presence of a star figure (Cantona) and his role as weed-influenced fantasy figure conjured up by the emotionally fragile Mancunian postman Eric (Steve Evets) represents a shift in the naturalist register that has so distinctively marked Loach’s oeuvre. This is a short-sighted observation. Loach is no stranger to subjectivity, flashbacks and explicit internalisations of protagonists can be identified in a wide array of his films: from the figurative treatments of mental illness in In Two Minds and Family Life, to the framing device of Land and Freedom and the tortured memories of his troubled protagonists in Ladybird Ladybird and My Name is Joe. In all the aforementioned (and in Looking for Eric), the use of these devices can be justified on the basis of narrative efficiency – at no point do subjective motifs infringe on the dominance of the central aesthetic or formal template. In Looking for Eric the departure comes from somewhere else, it is the delivery of the socio-political message, so central to Loach’s work, that marks a profound change.

You can be sure of one thing in a Ken Loach film, at numerous points a group of characters will exchange views on a social or political topic and, invariably, the message of the Left is heard with clarity and conviction. Loach uses dialectics to humanise abstract discourses, emblematising his characters to convey a chosen polemic. Looking for Eric is no exception, I think immediately of the scene where the modern, corporate Manchester United, and the supporters-run F.C. United are compared, with the latter ultimately being identified as more virtuous (the gangsters are the ones who can afford to go to Old Trafford, while the postmen watch F.C., moreover in the climactic battle, F.C. United fans storm the villains’ house, covering their possessions in red paint). More subtly Cantona’s mantra delivered to the disaffected, seemingly isolated Eric: “Always trust your team mates” is played out in real terms when the community unite to solve the protagonist’s difficulties (here a more crude dichotomy of individuality versus commonality is evoked in heavy-handed but effective terms).

This marked foregrounding of the social/political position in Loach’s work is usually given a resonance and afterlife beyond the films. For me, this is the one of the greatest strengths of the director’s approach: narratives are left without conclusion and deep uncertainties remain; the issues that the films raise do not disappear when the end credits roll, and the viewer is left in no doubt about that. Compare this approach to the use of socio-poltical issues in Billy Elliot or The Full Monty and we see a clear difference, post-industrial decline is evoked as backdrop and is duly enveloped in heroic denouement.

Significantly, despite Looking for Eric’s socio-political potential; the film’s ending is markedly conclusive; all loose ends are tied up, the quest for Eric’s happiness and fulfilment is completed. Thus we don’t leave the cinema thinking about gang crime; the decline of the family; and the vulgarity of the modern super-club, instead we leave with a smile on our faces because lovely Eric is content again. This isn’t the first time Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty have opted for a happy ending, in Ae Fond Kiss ‘star-crossed lovers’ Casim and Roisin re-unite. Yet their romance is qualified by corrosive religious sacrifice, as Casim walks away from his Muslim family and Roisin from her Catholic job. Looking for Eric is different because there is no glimmer of human sadness, no sign of the reality beyond the screen. Loach’s films should make you want a conversation; a debate, Looking for Eric just makes you smile.

By David Forrest

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