Not without justification as it turned out, before it aired, this programme was said to be sure to attract “critical acclaim” and indeed it is.
Samantha Morton’s directorial debut was remarkable in that her direction ensured that the entirety of the film was seen from Lucy’s – the main character, excellently played by Molly Windsor – perspective. It was filled with symbolism which, if done without the personal affect that Morton brought to this drama, might have been clichéd, but as the film drew on her own experiences as a child as well as fictional elements, the balance was just right…
The religious symbolism, the deer in the cemetery, the closing sequence showing Lucy on a bus with alternate sunlight and shadow falling on her face, the journey taking her into a future from which she would find no rescue; it all felt entirely natural and added cohesion to the story which often didn’t require dialogue to express, nor did it dilute the effect with it. The accepting bewilderment of a child who was thrust into an environment that was so alien to this quiet, unassuming and lost little girl was especially affecting.
Through Molly’s incredible performance and Morton’s careful direction, I felt as though I was Lucy and could relate completely to her confusion, her unwillingness to ask for anything, her wanting – and not receiving – her mother’s love and her acknowledgement that she couldn’t stay with her father.
I found it interesting too that Morton chose to keep many of the character’s Christian or surnames the same as those who portrayed them; I wonder if this was a deliberate attempt to keep ‘realism’ a core element of the film or was it simply for convenience? I’m inclined to think it’s the former, but perhaps I’m reading more into it because of the relevance of symbolism in the film.
Here are some of the cast list who used their real names for their roles…
KARL – KARL COLLINS
JOHANN – JOHANN MYERS
MICHAEL – MICHAEL SOCHA
DARREN – DARREN CAMPBELL
LADENE – LADENE HALL
PENNY – PENNY MORTON
MARIE – MARIE WHEELER KING
KIERAN – KIERAN WYER
OTIS – OTIS THOMAS
MUJ – MUJTABA AMIRI
MARCUS – MARCUS WALTERS
PC COOPER – COLLETTE COOPER
PC OLIVER – MARK OLIVER
And of course, Lauren Socha as Lauren…
I also felt that a lot of the dialogue was ‘ad lib’, especially during the scene in which Lauren and Lucy were quizzed by a security guard after Lauren was caught shoplifting. It didn’t ‘feel’ scripted for the main part, and again, that served to add to the realism.
In case you missed it, this is Channel 4’s own synopsis of the story.
“Lucy is 11 years old. She lives with her father. One day, not for the first time, he beats her. After the beating, Lucy lies at the foot of the stairs, and days and nights pass. She remembers receiving her golden Holy Communion book.
The next time she returns to school, Lucy asks to see her social worker, Jackie. Lucy is known to social services and has been in foster care before, but none of her foster parents have any placements available. Jackie takes her to a children’s home, Crop Row, where she is left with nothing save for the school uniform she is wearing.
Lucy is placed in a room with 16-year old Lauren who, appalled at having to share, is initially hostile to the younger girl. But a friendship begins to grow between the two girls.
The following day the two girls run away. Lauren is caught shoplifting from Boots and the police are called. The police take them back to Crop Row and Lucy is warned to stay away from Lauren.
Lucy discovers that Lauren is being abused by Ben, the manager of the children’s home, and so runs away. She attempts to go to her mother’s home, but there is no one in and so she spends the night walking the streets.
She returns to Crop Row and is taken shopping by her key worker. On her return Lucy has her first meeting with her social worker where she asks why she cannot stay with her mother. Days later she absconds again and goes to find her dad sitting alone in his local pub. He takes her back to his house and after he falls asleep on the sofa she returns to the home.
Back at Crop Row a Christmas party goes terribly wrong in front of Lucy and the other children. Lauren and Ben have a very public row and Ben humiliates Lauren. It is now clear to the other staff that Ben is sexually abusing Lauren and a violent confrontation ensues.
Lucy leaves the chaos of the home and once again goes in search of her mother. This time she finds her, and asks if she can stay with her. Her mother gives her the bus fare back to Crop Row and walks Lucy to the bus stop. As the bus pulls up her mother breaks down, embracing her daughter and sobbing.
Lucy gets on to the bus, which takes her back towards the care home and an uncertain future.”
As I mentioned earlier, this film was given a particularly striking credence as it was based around Samantha Morton’s own experience of growing up in care, and Molly Windsor parlayed her lines and took direction so brilliantly, I would imagine that many of the scenes would’ve thrown Samantha Morton back to traumas and a life she either found cathartic to have on public display or exceptionally painful to watch as a third-party.
The role of the deeply troubled and abused Lauren was also entirely believable and there were no holds barred in showing the effects on her of a life in which she too was one of The Unloved.
The scene in which Ben – the social worker who was sexually abusing Lauren – humiliated her at the Christmas party was a powerful one too. As was the revelation that several of the other care staff were aware that he was abusing Lauren but the fact that until a violent confrontation about it broke out at the party, all had kept the knowledge to themselves, was again poignant and darkly evocative of all the stories of abuse that’ve surfaced from care homes in the past and no doubt will in the future.
It more than adequately demonstrated that those who are in loco parentis are often as bad as those with biological parental control – if not worse – and the entire scene reflected in many ways a family Christmas scenario that’s played out in homes across the nation; fights breaking out, drunkeness and dark secrets revealed, but this was a ‘home’ where parental love was missing and the ‘family’ were made up of disparate children who, by the very nature of their being present, had already been through trauma.
Morton said of the characters of Lucy and Lauren that she had imbued both with parts of her own persona that reflected who she was as she grew up in care…
“I am massively a part of both the characters of Lauren and Lucy but also there’s a bit of me in Karl (the residential care home worker). I think when something’s based in such a personal part of your life, you do end up infusing lots of the characters with elements of your personality.”
When asked if she’d purposely used Nottingham as the setting for the film, Morton said, “Originally I felt it had to be Nottingham but then I started spending time in other cities like Newcastle, Glasgow and around London and I realised that this child’s story could belong to any city and even in America.
“But it came back to making a film about the world you know and every location (apart from Crop Row) in The Unloved is based on a personal memory. We didn’t need a location scout as I knew every road, bus stop and shopping centre… had sat on that bank. It was all from my childhood.”
And of course, the always wonderful Robert Carlyle played the part of Lucy’s abusive but repentant father. He portrayed this sad/pathetic character marvellously but again, as we saw the series of events from Lucy’s perspective, the full story about him was subtly imparted through her recollections and experiences. He was evidently a heavy drinker who was prone to violence but also prone to philosophical and rambling explanations of life’s imperfections and troubles, but above all, as a viewer, I felt that he loved Lucy but simply wasn’t capable of being a parent to her, and neither was Lucy’s mother.
They both seemed to want to be good parents, or perhaps that was just wishful thinking on Lucy’s part, for neither made any effort to take her out of care or to adjust their lifestyles to ensure Lucy wouldn’t stay in care, but again, from Lucy’s perspective, this was because they were troubled, not because they were selfish or uncaring. Seen from any other angle, one could easily accuse both of being self-centred, uncaring, abusive and emotionally cruel – as well as physically, in the case of her father.
Knowing that Lucy was going to spend her entire childhood in care was made from assumptions drawn when her mother refused to answer Lucy’s question “Can I stay here?” and her father was clearly not capable of caring for her. It would be interesting if a follow up film showed if the elfin and somewhat withdrawn Lucy turned into the tough but damaged Lauren. I suspect she probably would given that Samantha said she’d imparted parts of herself into both Lucy and Lauren’s characters.
One of the most affecting parts of the film for me personally was when Lucy went to her mother’s house to ask her directly if she could live with her. Although she wasn’t answered with a straight “no”, her mother giving her the bus fare to go back to the home was an answer in itself, but the really strong point of that scene for me was the cat on the back of the chair in which Lucy sat. Evidently, her mother cared more for her pet than she did for her own daughter, a fact which wasn’t lost on Lucy as she watched her mother tenderly stroke the cat’s face. As a child, to know that your own mother doesn’t want you but might have given you house room if you were a cat, must’ve been an impact – if this was drawn from the reality of Morton’s own life – so deeply hurtful, one can’t imagine ever getting over it.
As we’ve seen throughout the Britain’s Forgotten Children season of programmes, few children leave care without a multitude of problems and whether this film was cathartic or painful for Samantha Morton to be such a central part of, she – along with Molly Windsor and Lauren Socha – deserve a bag full of awards for their parts in this highly intelligent and emotionally articulate – albeit very depressing – film.