TV Review: Broken Homes

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The Independent Culture
Broken Homes, Lynn Alleway's documentary for Modern Times, provided a fascinating example of the way a film can sometimes twist out of a director's grip, turning a different face to the audience. The ostensible subject was the emotional trauma children experience when their parents separate or divorce, and the opening scenes confirmed the informal contract of the Radio Times billing - father and son in a wintery playground, displaying the slightly strenuous cheer of those whose togetherness is on the clock.

"I feel sad," said Rory later as his mother tucked him into bed, "I don't want to live my life; I want to die" - a melancholy piece of wildlife footage (the cameraman crouched at the head of the stairs, out of the child's eyeline) which further underlined the theme of innocent victims. But even by then you had the sense that the film was beginning to be about something else - in short, the ghastliness of men. There were several reasons for this - to begin with, Alleway had chosen three families in which the fathers had departed (far and away the most common thing, I know, but still a pattern that seemed to confirm male irresponsibility as the real issue). For another, the loyal parents in the first two cases had a clear moral advantage over their errant partners. The null thinness of the men's justifications ("basically I met somebody else"; "something just happened, you know") couldn't look anything but shabby when contrasted with maternal concern and childish unhappiness.

While never being complacently judgemental, Alleway took pains to unwrap the snug cocoon of self-forgiveness both men had wrapped round themselves - after Neil had marked the birthday of his son with cash and a two-word message in a card she asked him rather pointedly whether he had phoned: "That's something I've been meaning to do," he replied, "and I haven't got round to." You suspected also that Alleway had fallen a little in love with her principal character - Rory's mother Jacqui, a strong, attractive woman who realised that her son's happiness ruled out any cheap revenge. There was some evidence that such sweet reason had not always prevailed - "His girlfriend Alison, she's a stupid cow", said Rory, a remark which was perhaps not all his own work - but Jacqui's refusal to demonise her son's father and her wisdom about her own position left you slightly dazed with admiration. "But you're the nicest woman in the world," said Rory in a puzzled voice, after she had explained that daddy left because he loved someone else more. While you were under the sway of the film, that seemed a perfectly plausible title.

The third family was more complex - with less easily demarcated lines of blame. Here too, though, you were thrown back on the behaviour of adults rather than the emotions of offspring because the daughters, displaying far more wisdom than either of their parents, had declined to display their wounds on camera. Choosing sides was not quite as easy as it had been previously - she was a ferocious snob ("My parents don't pack turkeys at Bernard Matthews, for Christ's sake, darling," she hissed about her rival; "I said to the judge, `I don't send my girls to public school to mix with that riff-raff'"), while he was a self-satisfied solicitor, first seen guiding a video camera round a foreign garden. "Oh, he's such an idiot isn't he," giggled his ex-wife, a remark you at first took to be the gentle ridicule of a women over the worst of it. In fact she was as gentle as oven-cleaner but any sympathy that was dammed up didn't flow in his direction. The fact that his daughters refused to see him didn't aid his cause much - and nor did he, when he was seen gracelessly opining that though his daughters were "bright academically they're not street- wise". Street-wise enough not to want to contact you any more, you thought, momentarily stung out of charity. Had the film ended here it would have left a nasty taste in the mouth - fortunately Alleway had Jacqui to go back to, an exemplary case of what fidelity to your children should mean.

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