The new Ken Loach film, Looking for Eric, was set to open this week at E Street Cinema. Now we learn it won’t be coming to D.C. after all, which means there’s no point to running my review in this week’s issue. For posterity, here it is:
There’s a socialistic current running through the filmography of Ken Loach—his movies, like Bread and Roses and The Wind that Shakes the Barley, often pit human dignity against human institutions, and it’s not hard to guess which side usually wins. Looking for Eric is a bit of a turn, then. There’s some dignity at stake here, but the institution isn’t industry or Her Majesty’s Government; it’s another august British construct—football culture. A step from Loach’s usual grainy, gray-hued naturalism, Looking for Eric is of a slightly more fantastic persuasion—a sort of Charlie-Kaufman-meets-Charlie-Dickens fairy tale, snail-paced at first, later pranksterish and kinetic.
Its stars are surprising: One is Steve Evets, the former bassist of the post-punk band the Fall, as Eric—a jittery and defeated single father who works for the postal service, loves the Manchester United, and, in the first scene, suffers a panic attack and drives the wrong way into a roundabout. This leaves him shaken and then apparently stirred, because in one moment, he’s staring at the life-sized poster of French-born ManU star Eric Cantona that hangs in his bedroom, and in the next, at Cantona lui-même, who’s suddenly standing in his room, though only he can see him. Eric (the magical, bearded Frenchman) is there to spout homilies and help Eric (the disheveled everyman) take control—to re-woo his ex-wife Lily, to re-earn the respect of his teenage kids, to fend off a local gangster who has pressed one of Eric’s sons into hiding a revolver beneath his floorboards.
It’s a film chiefly about manhood and the group dynamics that affect our perceptions of it—a man and his mates, a father and his kids, a hooligan and a footballer. Because this is a Loach film, no turning of the cheek will do: In the end, Evets’ Eric confronts real danger head-on, albeit in a pleasing, unexpected way. This is Loach at his most playful: At first, Cantona’s portrayal seems to be of a piece with recent, very Zen depictions of athletes like Zinedine Zidane (in Douglas Gordan and Philippe Parreno’s documentary) and Kobe Bryant (in Spike Lee’s). That Loach soon proves willing to have fun with Cantona’s real-life philosopher-athlete persona (he’s kind of like a Gallic Yogi Berra) is a great boon. You’re just a man, Eric says to his idol halfway into the film. “No. I am Cantona!,” the striker retorts, before flashing a mischievous smile. Still, if the film stumbles, it’s because Loach wants it too many ways: There’s the drab urban landscape of Manchester and romantically hazy flashbacks (involving flowy skirts and blue suede shoes), along with a zany humor that becomes more pronounced over time, and not with nearly enough haste. If you’ll pardon the sports analogy, it’s like how some low-scoring football matches must feel to nonfans: Hardly worth it—that is, until the final, game-winning goal.