Looking for Eric (2009) Review

Looking for Eric (2009)
Director: Ken Loach
Screenwriter: Paul Laverty
Starring: Steve Evets, Matthew McNulty, Eric Cantona, Justin Moorhouse, Stefan Gumbs, John Henshaw, Stephanie Bishop, Gerard Kearns

Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) is struggling. His diagnosis, whether something medical or purely the hardships of life, is never given. Frankly, it isn’t important. To keep it vague is to keep it universal. While Eric is surrounded by friends and family, there is a strain he seems unable to shake. He says he didn’t mean to drive around that roundabout the wrong way, but it’s hard to believe him. He is vulnerable and fragile. While those who love him rally around, it is a more unlikely source of comfort he finds.

After enjoying a stolen spliff from his son’s stash, his own personal Jiminy Cricket appears in the form of iconic Manchester United footballer Eric Cantona (played by, you guessed it, Eric Cantona). Cantona is full of wisdom – which of course, is coming from somewhere in Eric’s own subconscious – and helps Eric to navigate his complicated life to the point that he feels like he can cope. Perhaps even thrive.

Looking for Eric isn’t a slick or beautifully-shot film; a muted palette and home video quality add to the realism being portrayed. It has all the hallmarks of a Ken Loach film. There’s family drama, a troubled man, working class stereotypes. Its characters are full of heart and warmth despite their lack of wealth and material goods. There’s Northern charm aplenty (almost to the point of caricature) and the quiet plot is driven entirely by its cast. What sets it apart from a lot of Loach’s endeavours is that Looking for Eric is funny. And not The Angels’ Share (2012) funny. Genuinely funny. Cantona’s trumpet solo springs to mind.

It tackles something often ostracised – men’s mental health and loneliness – by grounding it in something extremely relatable: football.

This thread of the great game helps the film to be more accessible than some of Loach’s more serious films, such as The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), I, Daniel Blake (2016) and Sorry We Missed You (2019). However, there was a theory upon its release, that the use of Manchester United and Eric Cantona as its footballing hero, caused the film to flop in certain areas of the country. Especially those with teams seen as direct rivals to the Red Devils.

The humour can obviously be found in Paul Laverty’s script but is aided inexorably by the film’s casting. Justin Moorhouse was already known for ‘Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights’ (2001-2002) and a longstanding stand-up career, John Henshaw had parts in classic British sitcoms ‘The Royle Family’ (1998-2012) and ‘Early Doors’ (2003-2004), and Gerard Kearns cut his teeth in enduring dramedy ‘Shameless’ (2004-2013). The casting of Kearns was particularly brilliant – not only does he look like he could be Steve Evets’ son, but his ability to play vulnerable yet hard is second to none.

Eric Cantona deserves special mention as he is obviously not an actor by trade, but he’s great. He leans in wholeheartedly, willing to say self-deprecating things and poke fun at himself.

Steve Evets was not particularly known for comic roles, but that makes sense – Eric is the straight man. His helplessness and fragility are emphasised by the juxtaposition between him and the ensemble cast of comedians. Evets is brilliant at exactly this.

It’s difficult for us to feel anything but empathy for Eric, which is handy when the big climax of the film crosses over into the realm of farcical. A troop of Manchester United fans take on a drug baron known to own guns, with nothing but a few baseball bats and an animal handler’s grasper – trust a postie to know how to handle a dog. These characters are a disenfranchised class, they are not going to trust authorities, they are going to take matters into their own hands. And so, it’s bad behaviour we’re willing to get behind.

Looking for Eric is a noteworthy film; it tells the story of a community that is often underrepresented in cinema, which is accolade enough. But actually, it is the telling of the story where the strength of the film lies. Telling a story that people recognise in a truly memorable way is the real achievement.

It is, however, more difficult to enjoy Looking for Eric fifteen years after its release. Ken Loach’s films are now tarnished by allegations of antisemitism: the accusations against the director are mainly linked to his involvement with members of the Labour Party who were also accused of antisemitism, as well as his 1987 play ‘Perdition’. It is complicated and nuanced.

So, while Loach’s films have been long-praised for giving a voice to those neglected both in film and in society – the English working class, and those on or below the poverty line – this accolade falls flat if it turns out his beliefs are harmful to other discriminated-against groups. His films, therefore, have to be added to the ever-growing list of media where audiences are left to decide whether or not the artist is problematic, and whether they can separate the art created from the creator.

Score: 13/24

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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