Deriving its archetypically tragic élan from persistent social sentience, the cinema of Ken Loach has, perhaps predictably, clung to the Victorian ideal of death—untimely, punitive, or even figurative—as a paramount plebeian emancipator. Significantly, this device is often most successful when seeming both inevitable and unnecessary (as with the consolidated bad blood of Kes or The Wind That Shakes the Barley); Loach has a nearly pre-Hellenic sense of dramatic fatalism paired with a reactionary fetish for dismayed squalor that perfectly aligns with his characters’ eventual acceptance of their less-than-ideal strata. And though the genre may be “British social realism,” unlike the choreographed bleak moments of Mike Leigh, Loach worms beneath sooty surroundings to examine the dreamy undercurrent of idealism that facilitates conflict in his Thatcher-ized milieu.
The protagonist of Looking for Eric, Eric Bishop (Steve Evets), is a familiar face in the Loach canon despite the actor’s freshness, but his trajectory represents a unique and resolute act of experimental generosity on the director’s part: It’s as though Loach is gauging how much of the idealism with which he’s always endowed his characters can be converted to surface-level optimism sans contrivance. And, indeed, Eric is an appropriately humble guinea pig. His lanky, curly-haired body is a wiry dearth of confidence made flesh and blood; he looks like a thin, icy conduit for tense hardship without room for the passage of warmth. Attempting to navigate multiple filial relationships from two failed marriages in a small, ever-cluttered flat, he wears the thankless caps of harried parent to teenage recalcitrance and perpetual fuck-up to his circle of co-postal workers, friends, and fellow sports fanatics. But Loach provides him with a spectral safe harbor in the form of soccer deity Eric Cantona, whose imagined presence cajoles and tutors Eric when he’s most desperate a la the ghost-Bogie of Play It Again, Sam, and through Cantona’s nearly behavioral therapist-like interactions, Eric begins to reluctantly tap the romantic roots of his social anxieties.
Some of these plot elements, particularly the Dale Carnegie-esque motivationalisms of the neurosis-born Cantona, become unwelcome detours into cuteness that the film struggles to structurally transcend; Eric’s self-incriminating, expository lovesick chatter, for example, teases out the dramatic goal of a reconciliation with his first wife, Lily (Stephanie Bishop), but in no way prepares us for the flourishes of firearmed delinquency that mire the film’s third act in unwarranted urgency. Rather than inspiration or sensationalism, what we desire of Loach—and what Looking for Eric provides in swatches—are patient observations of class- and character-defining mannerisms. When a brokenhearted Lily prosaically unpacks her unthawed feelings for the Eric that abandoned her with an infant years ago, she admits to limerent listlessness and occasional amorous dalliances in her singledom. In these poetically brief, unassuming details we sense oceans of socio-economic and gender context; Loach recognizes that the frustrated dissemination of language is the only route to a life-like working class embodying the sexual expectations and limitations of women.
And if the film achieves its only half-believable denouement through the death of Loach’s art rather than of one of his characters this time around, then that, too, seems tonally appropriate; we sense that neither Eric or their various costars can instruct us in any way through martyrdom, so their unlikely perseverance seems deserved—if not necessarily hard-earned. Much like the signature kinesthetics of Cantona, the unmistakable, and undeniably perceptive, aesthetics of Loach’s best proletariat odes are on display in Looking for Eric—even if those skills appear to be working toward an unsatisfying goal.