Looking For Eric, Ken Loach, 116 mins, (15)<br>Soi Cowboy, Thomas Clay, 117 mins, (15)

Don't be fooled by Eric Cantona and the football trimmings. This is a deeply political film at heart

Reviewed,Jonathan Romney
Sunday 14 June 2009 00:00

I'm beginning to think I misjudged Ken Loach. I used to think he didn't really have a style, that he wasn't that interested in making films – films that felt like films, that is, rather than like Ken Loach films.

Then came his IRA drama The Wind that Shakes the Barley, and it was something else, evoking history in a style both romantic and rigorously structured, not unlike the way that Bertolucci might once have done it.

By contrast, Loach's latest feature feels like "just" a Ken Loach film again. But the difference makes you realise how much Loach cultivates that very effect: he rejects the usual cinema rhetoric to create something that feels not like a spectacle, presented as if between red curtains, more like a story that someone's telling you in the pub.

This may not be a style I especially warm to, but it is a style, and the unvarnished, seemingly ramshackle Loach effect is here again, with slightly different inflections, in Looking for Eric. A gentler echo of Loach's 1993 comedy Raining Stones, this is a fantasy romcom of sorts, mercifully too rough-edged to be entirely whimsical, about a sad sack who redeems his chaotic life thanks to his idol Eric Cantona.

The hero, played by Steve Evets, is also an Eric: a middle-aged Manchester postal worker who abandoned his marriage years ago; who gets no respect from his teenage sons, one of whom is entangled with local hoods; and who's first seen, nerves shredded, navigating a roundabout in the wrong direction. The only enduring meaning in his life comes from Man U, whose former star Cantona looms on a poster in Eric's room. One weary pull on a spliff, and Cantona himself – or "lui-même", as he's credited – materialises behind a grizzled beard and (like Bogart to Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam) gives Eric advice in love, life and self-respect. Cantona played a similar Gallic guru role in recent Britcom French Film: one of these days, someone will have to cast Arsène Wenger, for variety's sake.

Scripted by Paul Laverty, the film is sometimes too soft for comfort: there's something a bit mawkishly easy in the idea that Eric's ex-wife Lily (Stephanie Bishop) is even remotely willing to reconnect with this walking subsidence, even if he does put on a cleaner anorak. As for the dewy-eyed flashbacks in which Eric recalls meeting her at a rock'n'roll night: surely they're of an age where they would have met at an early Buzzcocks gig?

Don't be fooled by the feelgood trimmings: this is, of course, a political film at heart. How Eric's mates rally round to help him beat adversity is pure fairy-tale wish fulfilment, but it's also the film's most Loachian point: strength in numbers against oppression, essentially a rallying call for the power of unionisation. At least someone will have flown a leftist flag in this sorry week.

Cantona affably sends himself up as a verbose oracle ("I'm up to here with your philosophy," barks an aggrieved Eric, "I'm still getting over the fucking seagulls"). He's more a monolithic presence than an actor as such, but that's not really the point. He's here to be lui-même, and doesn't he know it. "I am not a man," he intones sombrely, "I am ... Cantona" – then cracks a slow-burn grin.

But Cantona is easily out-ranked in charm by the unknown Evets, a scraggy wolfhound of a man with a peerlessly frazzled, what-just-happened demeanour. Looking For Eric is a likeable film at most, and it's largely Evets who makes it so – as does John Henshaw (the big bloke from the Post Office ads) as his sidekick, Meatballs. If you're looking for the definition of "bluff", Henshaw is it.

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While Loach's film has a ring of business-as-usual, here's a British feature so far off the customary map that they had to make it in Thailand. Young director Thomas Clay made an equivocal splash a couple of years ago with his self-consciously provocative debut The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, but his follow-up, Soi Cowboy, is far more subtly strange.

A tubby Scandinavian man (Nicolas Bro) lives in Bangkok with a young pregnant Thai woman (Pimwalee Thampanyasan), with whom he's besotted, though she seems to tolerate him at best. He's trying to pursue a clearly doomed film project, through excruciatingly awkward long-distance conversations with an agent. A studiedly languid first hour, in black and white, ends with the couple visiting a temple, then suddenly dropping out of sight – at which point the film turns into a rural gangster drama in colour. It all ties up in the end – if you can call an oblique coda, by David Lynch out of Wong Kar-Wai, tying up.

Clay is unafraid to declare his influences: there's a lot of Antonioni here, and overall the film is transparently in the mode of cult Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century provide the models for the film's sudden mid-point left turn.

But so what if Soi Cowboy is in large part a homage? Clay knows it, and he works through his influences to develop something distinctive and beguiling. Watch this director – and watch lead actor Bro, Denmark's own Timothy Spall, as charismatic in his shambling way as Loach's man Evets. This week, it's the schlubs who score the goals.

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