Director: Ken Loach
Manchester, the present day. Eric, a fortysomething postman crashes his car on a roundabout after driving erratically. He tries to discharge himself from hospital to make his early shift but is dissuaded from doing so. He returns home to his two stepsons, Ryan and Jess, from a failed marriage to Chrissy, who ignore and disrespect him. Eric’s colleague, Meatballs, tries to cheer Eric up through various self-help techniques; laughter, meditation etc. One evening, Eric smokes some of his stepson’s marijuana and speaks to the poster of Eric Cantona on his bedroom wall. Cantona emerges as a real person in his bedroom.
Eric reveals to Cantona how his accident occurred, having seen his first wife, Lily, for the first time in decades. He left her and his daughter, Sam, at a young age. Ryan gets involved with local criminals, who he hides a gun for in his bedroom. Sam, with a young child, is studying at university and asks Eric and Lily to help with babysitting whilst she completes her studies. Eric decides to repair his relationships with his ex-wife and daughter. He also asks the criminals to take the gun back, but they refuse, humiliating him in the process. Armed police raid Eric’s searching for the gun and arrested the entire family, who are eventually released. Eric’s friends decide to get their revenge by going to the main criminal’s house wearing Cantona masks and destroy his house in the process, forcing a confession, which is recorded.
Playing in Cannes to a rapturous critical response (well, Cantona was an iconic French footballer after all), ‘Looking For Eric’ has already been considered fresh territory for Loach. Usually a director of social realist dramas, this takes elements of the genre and adds a dash of magic as well as aspects of romantic comedy. It has all the ingredients to make it the most accessible Loach film to date; no doubt performing well in Europe, where much of the financing of the film came from, but also picking up a genuine audience in the UK, attracted by the presence of Cantona, who executive produced the film.
The narrative itself is nothing too original, nor complicated. Eric is a down on his luck postman who tries to turn his life around, with the help of his friends, all well drawn-out, and of course, the Gallic superstar himself. Cantona is on good form, nicely sending up his own persona and skewering his own reputation as one of the more erudite and philosophical footballers. After one proverb too many, Eric is quick to ask Cantona to cease his advice if it’s going to be so abstract. There’s even documentary footage of Cantona’s famous speech about seagulls following the trawler as if to reiterate the point. There’s constant doubt whether Cantona was attempting to be profound or attempting to wrongfoot his critics. Cantona is willing enough to make fun of himself and these are the most impressive aspects of the film. The lack of any stability in Eric’s life has led to his hero-worship of Cantona; watching Cantona in his pomp filled this gap. Ergo, Cantona is the only person who can help Eric in his moment in need now. To Loach’s credit, he never makes Cantona’s presence in the film mystical; it’s just a dope-fuelled illusion and nothing more dramatic than this, though there’s a nice touch in the final scene where one of the Cantona mask-wearing mob is revealed to be Cantona himself.
When Loach veers into more dangerous, traditionally social-realist material, the entire tone of the film changes, not necessarily for the better. We’ve been used to whimsicality; now we’re seeing something more real. Cantona can help Eric with his romantic woes, but is nowhere to be seen when Ryan meddles with local gangsters. Maybe it’s something Eric has to sort out for himself. The episode feels like something designed to win Ryan and Jess’s respect. They’ve previously ignored Eric, making him feel like a stranger in his home, but when they really need him, he comes to their aid. Although the revenge against the gangsters turns to farce and humiliation later, the whole plot twist just feels a little dropped in. The denouément, where everything is neatly resolved, is surprising for Loach, who doesn’t seem the type of director who’d settle for a conventional, more crowd-pleasing chain of events. However, when the gangsters are humiliated, it’s a nicely sympathetic act of solidarity and one can forgive Loach for this.
The performances are impressive. Steve Evets (not an especially experienced, let alone well-known actor), in the central role, captures his everyman role, convincing as a man at the end of his tether, trying to deal with a multitude of problems. John Henshaw, as his pal, Meatballs, who’s the jovial self-help guru of the group, provides much comic relief. The remaining cast are little-known actors working mainly in television, so this ought to provide some welcome exposure for actors who seldom put a foot wrong in the entire film. Intriguingly, watch for Evets’ reaction the first time he spots Cantona in his bedroom. Apparently Evets was unaware this was going to occur so his response is completely spontaneous and honest.
Interesting to note how ‘Looking For Eric’, like many previous Loach films acquire most of their funding from continental Europe. This is no doubt partly a reflection upon how his films perform; barely causing a ripple at home but doing decent box office numbers abroad. Although the UK Film Council and Film Four are involved in this production, the fact the so much overseas money contributes to the film should cause discussion about where public money is going in the UK, spent mostly on populist films desperately chasing a mainstream audience rather than more artistically worthwhile projects. Still, Loach’s films are more than capable of standing on their own two feet (‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’ grossed $23 million worldwide).
‘Looking For Eric’ is hardly new territory for Loach but neither is it the work of a director operating in his comfort zone. It’s more light-hearted than previous material, though it has its moments when the subject matter is more serious and hard-hitting (though it’s questionable whether this actually helps the film), but it’s not proof of Loach selling out or making concessions to make his film for palatable to audiences. For the most part, it’s hugely entertaining, often highly amusing, especially in the superb interplay between the two Eric’s. Too trivial to have been a genuine contender at Cannes this year, it’s nonetheless very impressive work indeed.