A gritty tale, lifted by whimsy

Steve Evets (left) and Eric Cantona play a depressed, suicidal British postal worker and his soccer idol, who appears from out of nowhere to offer companionship and advice.
Steve Evets (left) and Eric Cantona play a depressed, suicidal British postal worker and his soccer idol, who appears from out of nowhere to offer companionship and advice.
Posted: May 21, 2010

Magical realism? Ken Loach?

Well, yes and no.

In the engaging Looking for Eric, Loach, the master of British kitchen sink social drama - a filmmaker whose politics have always sided left, whose characters have almost always sprung from the working class, and often from the pits of gloom - tries a bit of imaginary whimsy.

Imaginary whimsy in the midst of a tale about depression and attempted suicide, about a busted marriage and gun-toting punks.

Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) is a postal worker in Manchester, and he's about to go postal. He lives in a debris-strewn house with his two aimless teenage stepsons; he's trudging through his days dead to the world, and can hardly bring himself to deliver the mail on his route.

After a failed attempt to do himself in, driving the wrong way on a busy roundabout, Eric is at the end of his rope. And then another Eric - the Manchester United soccer legend of the 1990s, Frenchman Eric Cantona - appears in Eric's life. Cantona, whose grace, agility, and ability to score goals made him a star in the soccer world, is Eric's hero. A giant poster of the man still hangs on his bedroom wall.

And then, suddenly, while Eric is making his rounds one day, Cantona - affably played by the real sports icon - is there by his side. And then back in Eric's house, sharing spliffs and wine, and offering counsel (annoyingly, often in French) to try to get the despondent Eric to grab hold of life again.

Cantona's appearance is illusory - like Jimmy Stewart's rabbit in Harvey or Stewart's angel, Clarence, in It's a Wonderful Life. There's a nice scene two-thirds through Looking for Eric when the two Erics are running by a river, and the famous footballer is putting his downtrodden fan through a regimen of exercises. Then Eric Bishop is spotted by his coworker pals. They worry what he's doing out there all alone.

Looking for Eric is one of Loach's more overtly sentimental pieces. Eric had been madly in love almost 30 years earlier, but his marriage to the beautiful Lily didn't work: He got scared and ran out, leaving her alone to raise their daughter. But now, with Cantona's help, Eric finally summons the nerve to ask Lily (Stephanie Bishop) for forgiveness, for a second chance.

It's not as easy as all that, of course. And Eric's eldest stepson (Gerard Kearns) is in the kind of trouble that can get him, and quite possibly Eric, too, sent to prison.

Evets, rangy and hollow-eyed until Cantona comes along, grounds his performance in the real world, even as he participates in the fanciful exchanges with his footballer friend. And Cantona, big and bearded, is a genial Gallic guru. It's hard not to be swayed by his optimism, his sagacity, his generosity.

And the optimism and generosity of Loach's film.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.

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