Eric Bishop (Steve Evets), a Manchester postman, is half-beaten by life. With his bent, bony shoulders, scruffy beard, and worried eyes, he’s a “scrawny thing,” as he puts it. It’s as if failure is literally eating away at him. But Looking for Eric is a Ken Loach film, so Eric is no helpless or pitiable pawn. He’s a fully realized character, and his working class background has endowed him with strengths as well as burdens.
A single parent to two teenage stepsons who treat him as if he were invisible, Eric is deeply ashamed of himself for having left his first wife and infant daughter, who he still adores, for reasons that remain a mystery to him 30 years later. He can’t even let loose any more at the Manchester United soccer games he and his mates used to go to, the one place where they could feel free (soccer tickets in Britain, like baseball tickets here, have gotten too pricey for working men). Aside from his own good heart, Eric has just one thing going for him, but that turns out to be all he needs: Those mates, a burly bunch of aging lads, have had his back since he was a boy and would no sooner abandon him than they would root for another team.
After an exercise in boosting self-esteem organized by one of his lads, who’s into self-help, Eric starts to conjure up the role model he chose, who appears like Bogey in Play It Again, Sam, listening gravely to Eric and giving him private lessons on how to dig himself out of his hole. Eric Cantona, a former Manchester United star known as much for his sometimes cryptic pronouncements as for his brilliant moves on the soccer field, plays himself here, bringing gravity and a touch of self-parody to the role. His exchanges with Evets are charming, shifting from daffy to dense and back again.
It may take a little while to get used to the Manchester dialects, which are thick as a milkshake, and Loach and his cinematographer and set designer make us peer through a lot of dingy lighting and cluttered environments to find our man. For the first half or so of the film, we see Eric only in long or medium shots, dimly lit or with his face half obscured. Not until about halfway through, when he’s starting to emerge from the fog he’s been living in, do we get a good close-up, and then the sweetness and light in his bony face, with its bad English teeth and furrowed brow lines, comes as a minor revelation.
Just as they build our sympathy for Eric, Loach and his longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty introduce conflict and tension nicely after a perhaps too talky beginning. Aside from one dinner party at Eric’s house that has to shoulder more dramatic weight than any one occasion should be asked to handle, the drama emerges organically from the naturalistic setting.
Eric’s love for his first wife, Lily (a lovely Stephanie Bishop), his relationship with his lads, and his journey from defeat to a renewed sense of self-worth are all moving, but my favorite part of this story was its thoroughly original and good-natured twist on the classic revenge tale.
Another new movie from England, the much more loudly hyped Harry Brown, is currently showcasing the standard approach to vigilante stories: A lone avenger goes on a bloody crusade to wipe out a plague of amped-up bad guys who threaten to stamp out civilization as we know it.
Looking for Eric offers a refreshingly realistic, sometimes even lighthearted alternative to that paranoic cliché. The nemesis this time is Zac (Steve Marsh), a sociopathic drug dealer who lures in Eric’s son Ryan (Gerard Kearns) with parties and seats in his box at the soccer games, only to use him as an unwilling accomplice. When Eric finds out what’s going on, he tries to free Ryan from his entanglement, which turns out to take plenty of cunning, creativity, and help from his friends.
Laced through with enough wit and grit to keep its unabashed sentiment from getting gooey, Looking for Eric gives us a life-sized, lovable working-class hero—and a whole new way to fantasize about revenge.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.