The life of an 11-year-old young girl (Eloise Laurence) from North London irrevocably changes after she sees her neighbour violently attacked.

A bold debut for Rufus Norris.

Director Rufus Norris’ debut feature is challenging on many levels in its exploration of love within the confines of a middle-class cul-de-sac in North London.

Norris’ greatest asset by far is his lead actress

Scenes of brutal violence, psychological torment and innocence lost make for a gruelling emotional journey in this frank, soulful work that clearly stems from the kitchen-sink drama traditions of British cinema. (It’s structure also unavoidably attracts comparison to Robert Mulligan’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.) Norris, one of the West End’s most acclaimed young stage directors, has announced himself as a filmmaker with a clear vision and a strong sense of character in bringing to the screen scriptwriter Mark O’Rowe’s adaptation of Daniel Clay’s 2008 novel.

Norris’ greatest asset by far is his lead actress, Eloise Laurence. As 'Skunk’, fellow debutant Laurence vividly conveys the confusion and increasing desperation of a precocious pre-teen. As a type A diabetic, she has already been forced to confront her own mortality, her daily sugar-level readings crucial to her well-being, but when her optimism begins to drain away, Laurence captures the hurt with precise insight while never foregoing hope. Onscreen for almost every frame, hers is a wonderful performance.

Skunk shares a sweet bond with her neighbour, the intellectually under-developed Rick (Robert Emms). Between their homes live The Oswalds, a family of three tough daughters ruled over by an impulsively violent widower (Rory Kinnear). When the promiscuity of one daughter is revealed, she lies and blames Rick, resulting in shockingly brutal retribution, all witnessed by Skunk. Her single father, level-headed lawyer Archie (Tim Roth), tries to maintain a level of civility amongst the warring families while caring unflinchingly for Skunk, whose first days at high school further undermine her sweet faith in the goodness of people.

Broken is first and foremost about love in various forms and the highs and lows of the experience, as filtered through Skunk’s eyes. Her brother Jed (Bill Milner) is discovering the pleasures and subsequent responsibilities of lust, while housemaid Kasia (Zana Marjanovic) is in a tempestuous romance with Skunk’s teacher, Mike (Cillian Murphy), who is also dealt a blow when falsely accused by one of the nefarious Oswald girls. Skunk herself feels the sting of love lost when her own first crush leaves town.

The bleakness of the lives in the cul-de-sac is tempered by Norris’ visual styling. His DOP Rob Hardy bathes the film in warm sunlight and the yellow glow of household lamps; the neighbourhood is littered with an ochre blanket of autumn leaves (the season of change no doubt symbolic). This is not the chilly steel-grey setting of early Mike Leigh or Ken Loach.

Most divisive will be Norris’ third act, which detractors have labelled as melodramatic soap opera and flagrantly indulgent. The narrative’s trajectory certainly spirals off into territory not hinted at earlier in the film and Norris’ decision to literally overstate Skunk’s strong spirit will prove insurmountable for some. (I’m dancing around spoilers here, suffice it to say eyes both teared up and rolled in equal measure at the screening I attended.)

Ultimately, Broken becomes more than expected due to Norris’ bold vision and Laurence’s fearless acting. It is a sad viewing experience, but never a pessimistic one. Skunk’s world is full of love; whatever fractured form it may take, Broken always returns to that enriching notion.

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1 hour 31 min
In Cinemas 16 May 2013,