Half Broken Things (2007)

  “We were living our lives like the pages of a magazine.”

Half Broken Things proves one of my pet theories: sometimes the people who appear boringly respectable are the most dangerous psychos. One of the clever elements about Half Broken Things–a British television thriller based on the book written by Morag Joss–is that the film creates a certain amount of sympathy for the three troubled main characters–until they simply go too far.

half-brokenThe film begins with middle-aged Jean (Penelope Wilton) sitting eating breakfast in a seaside bed and breakfast. This marvelous scene follows Jean’s gaze as she glances at the elderly female patrons gathered eating breakfast around her. The unspoken implication is that Jean realizes that old age waits just around the corner, and at the same time, she doesn’t seem ready to accept that she’s now relegated to this crowd. The B&B owner wants to know Jean’s plans–is she staying? When is she leaving? Again there’s a subtle implication: the B&B owner is familiar with Jean–she’s stayed at this place before, but the eagerness of the B&B owner’s question indicates that she may be glad to be rid of Jean. And Jean seems like such a nice, quiet, middle-class woman….

While the first scene of the film indicates that Jean is at the B&B on holiday, as it turns out, at 59, she is a professional house sitter. Jean receives an assignment to housesit a splendid old country mansion called Walden Manor. Jean immediately falls in love with the house, noting that of all the places she’s lived in, this one is the one she can call home. Problem is, the owners have locked all the rooms and this allows Jean access to only three rooms. And this is where things begin to become really bizarre….

Jean allows two young people to take refuge in the house–the pregnant Steph (Sinead Matthews) and petty criminal Michael (Daniel Mays). Together, these horribly damaged souls form an ad-hoc family, and they spend a dream summer in the house, but of course the clock is ticking away and the wealthy owners will inevitably return.

This eerie film initially establishes sympathy for Jean, Michael and Steph. They appear to only want what life has denied them, and now fate has given them a chance to taste what others have. There’s an implicit class theme here, and this is particularly transparent with Jean who steps into the country manor life as if it’s owed to her. Another scene subtly underscores the class difference when Jean’s bitchy employer is flummoxed by Michael when he masquerades as a member of the upper (and unassailable) classes. Pathological liar Jean really is the dangerous one here simply because Michael and Steph are much weaker characters. Jean’s audacious, psychotic behavior is almost breathtaking in its sheer normalcy, and this suspenseful, nail biting film makes for incredible viewing. From director Tim Fywell.

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Filed under British, British television

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