Broken Lines has unimpeachable British indie film cred. It was made on a shoestring budget on location with well-respected actors – Rita Tushingham, Olivia Williams and Paul Bettany – in supporting roles. It addresses the universal subjects of grief and suffering in a niche setting, which is north London’s Jewish community. But it was filmed in 2008 and is only now getting a DVD release in Britain. Is this because of Britain’s notorious failure to support a home grown film industry? Or is this because it isn’t very good?
The answer lies somewhere in the middle. It tells the story of Jake (Dan Fredenburgh, who had small parts in Love Actually and The Bourne Ultimatum), who returns to north London for the funeral of his father. It becomes apparent that he hasn’t been back in a while. Despite the family rallying together for the funeral, he is barely able to say a civil word to his mother (Harriet Walter) or his fiancée (Williams) and ends up sleeping over his father’s tailoring business, which is now to be wound up and sold. (The film’s title appears to be a reference to the chalk marks that tailors make on fabrics.) From the back window, where he sneaks his cigarettes, he sees a woman (Doraly Rosa) putting a physically frail man Chester (Bettany) to bed. Later he passes her in the street. Her name is B for Becca and she works as a waitress in a local café. Chester is her partner, a former boxer, who is now disabled. He’s practically housebound and very depressed. When Jake follows her on an errand from the cafe, B accepts his invitation to see his store. They meet again, and B lies to Chester about where she has been. As we all know from other movies, this is never wise.
Broken Lines was scripted by Fredenburgh and Rosa under the direction of Sallie Aprahamian, and it shows. The trouble is that they were so close to the material it was difficult for them to judge which elements could be removed, and which really should have been kept in. Fredenburgh gave himself a difficult part to play – a man surprised by grief and coping badly – which he does not quite pull off. Rosa’s expressive face and physicality means B is an easier character to relate to, but it is difficult to understand her decision-making. The story leaves you hungry for more information: how is Jake able to hold down his job while all this is going on? How long have B and Chester been together? Why is she working in that crummy café? Why did the movie go to the trouble of casting Olivia Williams and then forget about her?
Although Williams barely has anything to do in her very limited screen time, Bettany steals the movie. Chester alternately pities B for having to care for him, or rages at her and everyone else in his path, spitting and swearing in helpless fury at his situation. Bettany has built his career on a willingness to play naked, crazy, and/or both, as he does here. It’s a small part made huge through the power and dynamism of his acting. Rosa wilts in his presence, which is a shame. An actress able to match Bettany glower for glower would have shifted the whole dynamic of the film.
As it is, the movie is well shot by Jean-Louis Bompoint, who has worked with Michel Gondry and knows how to use the busy London street settings to his advantage. However the editing makes the running time feel considerably longer than its 97 minutes, and the lack of professional lighting means Broken Lines looks murkier than necessary. Stronger direction by Aprahamian, who is making her cinema debut after working in the British TV industry, would have been able to surmount these obstacles. As it is, Broken Lines is a marvellous showcase for Bettany, a useful calling card for Rosa and Fredenburgh, and something for the rest of us to chalk up to experience.