“It all began with a beautiful pass…” So kicks off the unlikeliest Ken Loach film you’ll ever see.
The master of social-realist cinema meets the self-styled king of football, Eric Cantona. Yes, you read that right. The director of The Wind That Shakes The Barley and ‘Le Roi’ himself, the fan-kicking, proverb-spouting former Manchester United No.7.
Unexpected? That’s an understatement. After all, in casting terms, Loach prefers to scout his actors from the terraces rather than the pitch. Stars – let alone football legends – have no place in his down-at-heel depictions of working-class life. Do they?
Well, not usually. But Loach is not so short-sighted that he doesn’t recognise the role such heroes play in our lives. South Manchester postman Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) is one such stargazer. A big fan of United, yes – but an even bigger one of Cantona.
When we first meet Bishop, his life’s falling apart (two failed marriages, unruly stepsons, panic attacks…). Unable to confide in anything other than his Cantona posters (“Have you ever done anything you’re ashamed of?”) he gets an almighty jolt when the man himself appears in his room, a very real-looking figment of Bishop’s spliff-addled imagination. It’s a bizarre device, but somehow it works, Cantona repeatedly offering sage advice to help his number-one fan get back on track.
Echoing earlier Loach films like Riff-Raff and Raining Stones, Looking relegates politics to the subs’ bench, letting humour and humanity lead the frontline. While Cantona plays himself with just the right amount of self-mockery (“I am not a man,” he says, “I am Cantona!”), the true star is Evets, projecting world-weariness yet giving his all as the beleaguered Bishop.
Though at times the story feels as laid-back as Dimitar Berbatov, the final third judders with moments of shock comparable to anything Loach has done. Powerful yet tender, it comes off with enough mainstream appeal to bring the director to a wider audience without alienating the hardcore. And no, you don’t need to understand the offside rule to fall for its charms.
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With less of the grit but still plenty of the earthy humour Loach is renowned for, this walks the indie/ commercial line with assurance.