The Unloved, the directorial debut of acclaimed actress, Samantha Morton, is a peculiar film. As part of Channel 4’s Britain’s Forgotten Children season of programming, it has its heart in the right place. A single drama exploring the life of Lucy (Molly Windsor), who after a brutal beating by her father (Robert Carlyle; Trainspotting, 28 Weeks Later) is sent to a group home. There, through the help of her roommate, Lauren (Lauren Socha; Kelly from Misfits), she discovers the thrills of sneaking out, shoplifting, and getting into other sorts of trouble. Intended as a sobering look at the limitations and hardships of child protection services in the UK (a title card at the end of film reads that more than 70,000 children remain in the British care system), I couldn’t help but feel oddly unmoved by the whole affair. I must be in the minority, considering the film won the BAFTA for Best Single Drama.
The Unloved is a social issue drama, and like most social issue dramas, its message is its top of the priority. Whether or not the film is good is almost beside the point. Some social issue dramas, like Victim or Random, are great films in their own right. However, more often than not, the earnestness of such films can come across as patronizing (Philadelphia; Lee Daniels’ The Butler) or downright insulting (Crash; Dallas Buyers Club). While The Unloved doesn’t transcend its social issue drama, it’s still a good, if not great film.
As a director, Morton knows how to find the quiet horror in the mundane, such as the aforementioned beating in the opening. She eschews melodrama for quiet, documentary-esque observation; each scene carries an undercurrent of potential chaos. However, this documentarian approach is brought down by slack editing and a tinkling score fit for a twee indie drama. There are scenes of tremendous power, like a Christmas party that quickly devolves into a large fight, but that’s all they are: scenes. The ‘slice-of-life’ approach is a noble one, but in the case of The Unloved, the whole film feels a bit aimless.
The actors are similarly a mixed bag. Windsor is a natural screen presence, but she is so quiet and enigmatic, the viewer doesn’t know anything about her character besides the fact she has an abusive drunk for a father and pines to live with her mother. I’m inclined to believe this was a stylistic choice from Morton. In trying to make her ‘the every child’ of Britain, Lucy feels more like a sad blank. She is a natural observer of everything around her, but she has so little to do, it’s frustrating to see her (presumed) talents not properly exercised. In sharp comparison, Socha is a vibrant joy to watch. She is essentially giving the same performance she did in Misfits (she was BAFTA-nominated for The Unloved; BAFTA winner for Misfits the following year). However, her almost intrinsically linked humor and aura of sadness, her vulnerability beneath her tough, chav exterior, is compelling and heartbreaking to watch.
The Unloved may not be a damning trip through the inferno like Scum, but Morton has a deep empathy and curiosity for her characters, and shows a lot of promise as a director. Hopefully, with time, she can use her acute sense of observation to craft a truly great film.