Looking for Eric, finding a gem

2009-10-12 00:00

IT’S the small films that are almost always the most enjoyable. Looking for Eric director Ken Loach has always known this and somehow, incongruous as it seems, this is what has brought him together with football star and icon Eric Cantona.

And by the end of Looking for Eric, you’ll want to stand up and shout “Ooh Ah, Cantona!”, because it’s always enjoyable to see a big man, in this case big Eric, stand behind a little man, little Eric, and see the little man win.

Eric Bishop — superbly played by TV actor Steve Evets in a cast where, refreshingly, Cantona is the only recognisable personality — is a postman who has broken down and taken his van 15 times the wrong way round a traffic circle to be admitted to a mental institute. On his release, he turns to cannabis to try to figure out what’s going on in his head.

Little Eric’s second wife has just been released from prison and not turned up, leaving him with two teenage boys, who, given his invisible nature, show Eric no respect. And he has realised that his first wife, whom he abandoned with a baby daughter, is his only true love. He starts getting life-coached by Cantona, who is part imaginary, part mystically real.

The idea for the film was sprouted when Cantona’s production company approached Loach with an idea that was reworked by the director and writer Paul Laverty. Cantona, who has turned with some success to screen acting in France, has been a fan of Loach’s, known for his left-wing politics and gritty socialist realist films.

It seemed an unlikely partnership. But Cantona’s personality, so different to most automated robot footballers of his generation, made him perfect for the film. Cantona grew up in working class Marseille and is proud of the fact that his grandparents fought for the left in the Spanish Civil War, the subject of one of Loach’s films, Land and Freedom.

And although it is Evets, and the outstanding Stephanie Bishop as ex-flame Lily, who are the central role-players, thoughtful, intelligent Cantona’s presence is overpowering.

The scenes between himself and little Eric, self-admittedly scrawny and almost insignificant especially next to the towering spectacle of the retired football player, are witty and sharp. They reduce Cantona to a human level as he pokes fun at himself, such as when little Eric says, “Sometimes we forget you’re just a man”, and the footballer responds: “I am not a man — I am Cantona.” Cantona’s clumsy trumpet rendition of Les Marseillaise on a housing estate balcony is touching and a classic.

At Manchester United Cantona was made human by his philosophical musing made after receiving a nine-month ban for fly-kicking a Crystal Palace supporter, when he told the press conference, “When seagulls follow a trawler it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”

He tells little Eric, who is confronted by his son having fallen under the spell of a psychopathic gangster, “If they are faster than you, don’t try and outrun them. If they are taller, don’t outjump them. If they are stronger on the left, you go right. But not always. Remember, to surprise them, you’ve got to surprise yourself first.” Learning to be positive and stand up for yourself is a central theme of the film.

This is Loach’s most light-hearted film, but the gritty social realism is still there in the lack of hope in little Eric’s life, drugs, guns and violence destroying working class society, and the need for solidarity among communities. Cantona tells Eric, “trust your team-mates always”, and the plan the postman and his United fan pub-mates hatch to get one over gangster Zac is positively hilarious.

The theme of the small man against fascism is also there. In Land and Freedom and The Wind that Shakes the Barley, about an early 20th century Irish rebellion against the English, history dictated that the small man had to lose. In Looking for Eric, Loach has allowed himself the liberty of giving a victory to the underdog, and the film is a gem and a victory too.

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