TELEVISION / Taking leave of the senses: Thomas Sutcliffe on The Leaving of Liverpool

Click to follow
THE MUSIC for The Leaving of Liverpool (BBC 1) was a slow-motion mournful nursery tune, like a music-box playing as the mainspring winds down. You could say much the same for the film itself - repetitive, mechanically sentimental and unfolding at a pace that suggested it was time for a few brisk turns of the key.

But that's a little too brutal perhaps. The film was garlanded with awards in Australia (where it was made) and you could see why: the acting was good; the true story on which it was based - that of the forced resettlement of English children in Australia - was powerful and deserved exposure; the film often looked marvellous.

It also had a narrative driven by the most high-octane of fuels - the powerless miseries of children. Unhappiness finds its natural home in children, flourishes there as it can do nowhere else, because they turn blame upon themselves and collaborate unwittingly with their adult persecutors.

The case of abandoned and orphaned children sent to Australia, where they were turned into skivvies or subjected to the sanctimonious cruelty of the Christian Brothers, presents children's misery in particularly acute form. Extracting emotion from a story like this is like getting blood out of a well-fed bed-bug.

Which just serves to make you wonder why the film-makers felt they had to try so hard. The film was so self-consciously agonised, so intent on giving a poetic gloss to the misery it depicted, that the end result was oddly untroubling. Sometimes this was a matter of the triteness of the editing (a pious speech about an orphanage's 'proud tradition' was played over film of the speaker beating one of the girls), at other times of the film's passion for slow, pensive speeches, heavy with allegorical cargo.

And though the sullen aggression that unhappiness creates was quite well caught in the dialogue, the writing seemed more concerned with performing its own verbal arabesques than in putting character into speech. The scene in which Lily was finally reunited with her mother (Frances Barber as the sort of sumptuous fashion-plate every orphan dreams is going to pitch up one day) was a mere sketch, observed from a distance as though a close examination of the embarrassment and resentment of that moment might break the hagiographic soft-focus of the drama.

Similarly when Lily first had sex with Bert, the 'brother' whom she has sworn to protect, the moment was drained of urgency or awkwardness - an affecting tableau of loving innocence rather than an unblinking audit of the damage done.