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I Am... Kirsty review: Hard-to-recommend film plays like an unconvincing GCSE essay

The latest in Channel 4’s trio of standalone films about women in trouble, co-written by and starring Samantha Morton, is low on surprises

Ed Cumming
Wednesday 31 July 2019 11:17 BST
Samantha Morton drew inspiration for the role from women she knew when in care
Samantha Morton drew inspiration for the role from women she knew when in care (Channel 4)

“Kirsty, I just want to show you that not all men are bastards,” says Ryan (Paul Kaye), near the start of I Am... Kirsty. It’s the latest in Channel 4’s trio of standalone films about women in bad situations. I Am... Nicola starred Vicky McClure (Line of Duty) as a woman slowly realising she is in a toxic relationship. In the third film, I Am... Hannah, Gemma Chan’s title character struggles with “societal and familial expectations” around her biological clock.

Here, Kirsty is a single parent to two daughters, Madison and Tilly. She is struggling to provide for them with her job as a cleaner. She is played by Samantha Morton, who also helped series creator Dominic Savage write the film. Needless to say, Kirsty is not the villain. “I need to do a runner, but I don’t know where to go,” she says to her colleague, who replies by suggesting sex work. Ryan is on hand with a short-term loan. Kirsty is in no position to turn it down, despite his foghorn warning he will reveal himself to be a bastard.

So it proves. He is not the only one. It turns out that all men, with the possible exception of the guys running the corner shop, are bastards. There is Steve, the partner who runs off with Kirsty’s sofa and telly, leaving them to eat beans and toast off the floor. There is Kirsty’s boss, who chastises his desperate employee rather than give her the extra hours she asks for. Off screen, there is David Cameron and George Osborne and the other bastards who imposed the austerity that is making life so hard for Kirsty and women like her, forcing them into impossible situations.

It can be difficult to criticise a polemic drama like I Am... Kirsty, because it is easy to sound like you are making light of the issues being addressed. There is plenty of evidence of the damage British government policies in the past 10 years have done to some of the most vulnerable members of society, especially women and minorities. It’s also true that these stories are under-told at a time that prefers Netflix-glossy series about Pablo Escobar, or the royal family, or sexy assassins. Where there is bad news to be delivered, it’s better if the messenger is David Attenborough and the bad news is mainly about penguins.

Morton spent some of her early life in care, and has said she drew inspiration for the role from women she knew when she was a girl. Her Kirsty has all the plausibility and sympathy you would expect, a woman being slowly crushed by forces beyond her control. Kaye is menacing. He leans his unshaven face into Kirsty’s personal space, turns up to her flat unannounced at night, and reminds her that a man’s physical strength can still be a source of great terror.

Despite the performances and the subject matter, I Am Kirsty is hard to recommend. Like a GCSE essay, it tells us what it’s going to do and spends the next 45-minutes doing it. There are no laughs and no surprises. Jimmy McGovern has set plenty of stories in the same territory without forgetting the viewer. The Virtues, Shane Meadows’s semi autobiographical piece starring Stephen Graham, wrought great emotional range from a small canvas. Difficult lives can make cracking TV. I am not convinced by this one.

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