For the inaugural edition of STILES Film Club, Maxwell Tait revisits Looking For Eric, Ken Loach’s charming story of a Mancunian postman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, until his guardian angel appears to him—Eric Cantona. That, plus two more films for your lockdown viewing pleasure.
Ken Loach’s forgotten stoner-soccer fantasy Looking For Eric, starring King Eric Cantona
Remember Zero to Hero, Michael Owen’s first foray into acting? The CBBC series from 2000, where he steps out of a ten year old’s bedroom poster and gives advice to the aspiring footballer? If you do, you’ve probably found yourself wondering, ‘What if veteran filmmaker Ken Loach remade Zero to Hero? Yes, and instead of a 20 year old Michael Owen magically appearing to the child, what if it’s Eric Cantona in his forties? And if the kid was a struggling single-dad in Manchester? That steals his stepson’s weed from a tupperware box under a floorboard to encourage these visions? Hello?’
There are a number of possible reasons why 2009’s excellent Looking for Eric is overlooked. In his fifth decade in the business, cinema-grandmaster Ken Loach won his first Palme d’Or at 2006’s Cannes Film Festival with The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Irish war of Independence epics are a notoriously hard act to follow, not least when they win what is considered the highest accolade in cinema by anyone that has watched more than two Ingmar Bergman films. Perhaps it’s a political thing? Everything was all roses back in 2009; with the steady Scottish hands of Mr. Gordon Brown at the wheel, Loach’s social wit was deemed superfluous. Well, until the Conservatives appointed Franz Kafka as the Work and Pensions Secretary, and Loach’s I, Daniel Blake won him his second Palme d’Or in 2016—one of only eight directors to do so. Or it could be that, to put it bluntly, Looking for Eric is such a good film that for a long time it evaded the hilariously damning categorisation of ‘football film’.
My interpretation is a little more ethereal. Just like those brilliant COVID dreams you had where you were fly-fishing with Dame Maggie Smith, or challenging Ainsley Harriott and Laurie Anderson to a game of Settlers of Catan, Looking for Eric has so much in common with a mad dream that people must be involuntarily forgetting what they have experienced. Perhaps a recap would be helpful.
Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) is a weathered Mancunian postman that is on the brink of collapse. He is also a Manchester United devotee. The failure of his second marriage has left him struggling to raise/police his two teenage stepsons, and ruing the moment he walked out on first wife, Lily (Stephanie Bishop), some twenty years ago, after the birth of their daughter. Fresh Grandparent duties force an awkward reunion for Lily and Eric, and when their now adult daughter approaches her dissertation deadline as a single mother, a difficult autopsy of their past relationship is undertaken. Just as things couldn’t get any more difficult, his eldest stepson Ryan (Gerard Kearns) gets mixed up with some violent sorts. It doesn’t bear to consider the scale of Eric’s breakdown were the film set during poor old David Moyes’s 2013/14 Premier League campaign.
Enter Eric Cantona, King Eric—Postman Eric’s saviour, Jacques of all trades. He arrives: part date-doctor à la Will Smith in Hitch, part Supernanny Jo Frost, and, in a fabulous dance sequence, even part Elvis Presley. He serenades the suburbs of Manchester with a trumpet solo from a block of flats. Despite the absurdity of all of this, the whole thing works, in part because the film never leans on Cantona to carry the film. His role is similar to Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (in some ways, at least): there is more than enough meat without him to make a great film, but the charismatic Frenchman is carefully deployed to provide pitch-perfect moments of magic. Hardly surprising considering the seasoned combination of Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty, who manage the difficult job of balancing silly and serious with aplomb.
It’s wonderful being transported back to the blissful ignorance of the late-2000’s. There’s a great line from Eric’s Postman mate Meatballs (John Henshaw) that places the film more effectively than radiocarbon dating—“YouTube? Is that a new kind of Brylcreem?”. Heaving pubs and away day coaches are certain to provide a gut-punch of nostalgia, but, then again, most things will at the moment. Peculiar, sweet, and unpredictable, Looking for Eric is the kind of film you can’t imagine being made today (though, if Netflix or Amazon are reading this, I’m working on a reboot starring Dimitar Berbatov). And if that doesn’t convince you to stick it on, it’s got some absolutely glorious archive footage of Eric Cantona doing what he does best.
The Assistant (Green, 2020)
2020 may not be remembered as a vintage year for film, but it definitely had its moments. With so many Hollywood big-hitters pushing back their release dates to maximise box-office returns, only the bravest films remained. Step up The Assistant, Kitty Green’s powerful and focused response to convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein, and the insidious practices of the ex-movie producer.
Julia Garner gives a sublimely taut performance as Jane, the overworked assistant to an unnamed film executive. There is a constant palpable tension, a greasy smog of pressure and passive aggression that veils the right-angles of the office. The film itself is a laudable exercise in restraint—it’s about what you don’t see, and what isn’t said. Green knows that Jaws loses its edge when we see the shark.
The Assistant is available to rent on BFI Player.
Edge of the City (Ritt, 1957)
It’s an enchanting thing to watch two of the most influential actors of the 20th Century at the genesis of their careers. In Edge of the City, Sidney Poitier, the first black male to win Best Actor at the Oscars, and John Cassavetes, the Greek/American actor who went on to become ‘the father of American independent cinema’, give exquisitely smooth performances as Axel Nordmann and Tommy Tyler, two stevedores rallying against their loathsome, racist boss in a New York railyard.
It looks the part, as any self-respecting fifties film noir should, but it’s the chemistry between these two titans of cinema that really make this film stand out. It’s quite unusual for this era to see a friendship between a white man and a black man shown without fanfare, and quite remarkable that Green Book managed to make such a hash of it sixty years later.