This review contains spoilers.
As Christina Fitzsimmons (Anna Friel) gets her kids ready for school in episode one of Broken, she talks her son through his maths homework by breaking a complex problem into individual sums. Christina’s whole life is sums – the oppressive mental arithmetic of not-enough. Not enough time (when we meet her she’s forty minutes late for work) and not enough money (she’s borrowed sixty pounds from the till and is sacked as a result).
Halfway through the episode, Christina makes another calculation: if she waits three days to report her mother’s sudden death, she can draw on her pension and feed her family for… what? Another week? Ten days? It won’t be enough to last the thirteen weeks she’ll have to wait for her Job Seeker’s Allowance claim to go through, but she can’t afford to think that far ahead. The plan is carried out, immediately discovered by the family’s kindly priest, and Christina ends the episode perhaps facing prison.
This is Jimmy McGovern’s latest series for the BBC, a moving six-part drama about characters criss-crossed with the fault lines of their past and present circumstances, and threatening to break apart.
By dramatising Christina’s choice, McGovern breathes life into a scandalised tabloid headline—Monster Steals Dead Mum’s Benefits—and recasts a villain as a victim. Christina didn’t act out of heartless greed; she acted out of desperate practicality. We can see that and Father Michael Kerrigan (Sean Bean) can see that, but will the authorities see that?
As a Catholic priest, Father Michael is an authority to his parish, but he wields that power gently. He listens, reassures and offers help rather than standing in judgment or doling out discipline. Going by the flashbacks he suffers to his traumatic childhood—beaten by a teacher, cruelly chastised by his mother—Father Michael has had quite enough of punishment. Thankfully, children no longer have to confess their sins at mass, he says with a gentle smile. That was the old days.
The old days, though, are still here for Bean’s character, in whose past is a pivotal, as-yet unexplained transgression (“I’ve done one or two decent things in my life but I never flashback to them” he tells a fellow priest played by Adrian Dunbar). He’s tormented, still the little boy upbraided by a furious mother, even when that mother is now aged, bird-light and bed-ridden.
One scene is particularly poignant in showing young Michael’s sensitivity wounded. At school, he wrote an instinctively emotional response to Gerard Manley Hopkins poem The Windhover that earned him a caning – it was so exceptional, said the teacher, that he must have have help. Even though, as seen in the symbolic photography of the opening credits, that school is now in ruins, its cruelty is still alive and well for Father Michael.
A poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (who served as a priest in Liverpool) featured in Bean’s highest achievement in 2012’s Accused: Tracie’s Story, the actor’s previous collaboration with McGovern for which he was rightly rewarded by award nominations and wins. As Tracie, the transvestite alter-ego of English teacher Simon, Bean gave a transcendent recital of No Worst, There Is None.
“People know Sean’s a good actor,” McGovern told the Radio Times this year, “But I know he’s a great actor.” Accused was proof of that, and so is Broken. Bean wears Father Michael’s pain lightly – it’s always there but tamped down underneath the character’s kindness and vocation. His gentleness stops this mournful drama from becoming overwhelmingly bleak. You could say the same for Friel’s gutsiness as Christina. Her situation may be desperate, but her love for her kids shines spots of light on the shadow.
The music, mostly vintage piano blues, does the same. Nina Simone’s voice adds a sense of glamour to locations that are anything but. It’s not always subtle – Unforgettable plays as the adult Michael sleeps on the floor next to his mother’s bed, its lyrics emphasising his inability to forget the pain she caused him as a child – but it’s effective.
As strong as Friel is, Broken belongs to Bean. As Father Michael, he’s a rare thing on gritty TV drama, a good priest and a good man, played by an undeniably great actor.
Broken continues next Tuesday the 6th of June on BBC Two.