Originally aired on Channel 4 back in May 2009, Samantha Morton’s directorial debut, The Unloved, is now being granted a limited release on the theatrical circuit. A pseudo-autobiographical drama about the experience of young people who live in the children’s homes, the film is complex and artful, but becomes a little too dreary and uneven in the final count.
Although the title takes into its embrace the whole population of those in the care system (it was broadcast in a series called Britain’s Forgotten Children), The Unloved‘s scope is mostly narrowed down to the story of Lucy (Molly Windsor), an eleven-year-old girl who is taken away from her abusive father (Robert Carlyle) and put into a children’s home.
From the beginning, the film is defined by a minimalistic formalism, with a heavy emphasis on silence, space and static camera work. The opening scene, featuring Lucy being interrogated – and eventually beaten – by her father, is mostly communicated in a single take, positioned in the corner of their gloomy living room. At the point of violence, the camera cuts away, to an innocuous shot of a corridor; thus, the film creates an aesthetic of stillness, of inaction.
Lucy’s experience is narrated closely, with a subjective sense of perspective. The camera is constantly at her level, often in close-up on her face, observing her isolation during school days, where raucous classes dissolve into near silence. Once she arrives at the home, she is introduced to teenage delinquent Lauren (Lauren Socha, Misfits), and the odd surrogate family that live there in a context of limbo, or armistice, squirreled away in care without any apparent hope of progress or escape.
Moments of subtle beauty and warmth – the girls silhouetted on a hilltop against the urban sprawl – are brief, as Lauren lands the two in the nick for shoplifting. Even the care home proves an unstable emotional structure, as the place resonates with tension among the children and the social workers, which inevitably erupts in petty squabbling and violence.
Morton capably gives the film a poetic grace, with direction that harmonises perfectly with the intended effect. However, such a weighty, stark film runs the risk of becoming wearisome, or somewhat soporific. Indeed, despite an unsettling performance from Windsor, who gives Lucy an internalised, damaged quality, it is Socha’s strong, impressive appearance as Lauren, shifting between brash teenage arrogance and exploitable vulnerability, that offers the narrative’s most involving development. However, the script (devised by Morton, written by Tony Grisoni) is equally restrained, refusing to make explicit statements about the care system, or to give its characters or issues a glimmer of resolution.
While The Unloved succeeds in creating a uniquely sparse, melancholy atmosphere, it is a success that requires the sacrifice of the kind of necessary emotional connection that such social realist dramas need to be truly moving. There is a richness to the film, but a reliance on a gravity of tone alienates the viewer from the events on screen, making the harrowing aspects (Lauren’s sexual abuse from a care worker) seem distant and the muted, while tender moments (Lucy’s reconciliation with her father, and awkward meeting with her mother) seem cold.
The Unloved is a film that is stylistically assured, but it works with such subtle, ambiguous storytelling that, at times, it doesn’t seem to exist at all.