Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Family Life (1971)

Family Life is a film directed by Ken Loach based on a previous Wednesday Play he had made for the BBC in the 60s entitled In Two Minds. It centres on the troubled life of a young woman, Janice (played by Sandy Ratcliff, who at the time was claimed by David Bailey to have 'the face of the 70s' and would go on to be one of the first residents of Albert Square in EastEnders before a publicised addiction to heroin led to her sacking) whose mental state becomes increasingly erratic following a abortion she was forced into having by her overbearing parents. Taken into care, the film looks at how society systematically fails Janice - much like Loach's previous Cathy Come Home was an equally unflinching and savage indictment on the failings of society towards those in most need.

As you can probably guess, it's not a comfortable watch. It's harrowing and decidedly grim although apart from one scene involving ECT it's not especially shocking visually. Rather, it's the all pervading, stiflingly tragic and futile mood the film is infused with.  That and three stand out performances from Ratcliff as Janice, Bill Dean as her father and Grace Cave as her mother. The performance of Cave in particular is a monstrous tour de force. Loach presents a woman who is so cold, so dried up, so cruel and so contemptible towards the young generation that she cannot believe for one moment it's her attitude towards her daughter that has led to her schizophrenia. I have since read that Cave equally believed her character was right and that she was in no way to blame for Janice's ill health. It doesn't surprise me at all to learn where Loach found this talent; he had met her at the Walthamstow Conservative Association's Ladies Committee and sensed instantly this formidable, icily polite woman was perfect for the role. There's certainly something of the Mrs Thatcher about Cave's performance; here is a woman who would absolutely believe that there is no such thing as society, only family as her leader would go on to announce.

The film favourably depicts the techniques pioneered by RD Laing, the radical British psychiatrist who believed that schizophrenia was a result of a malignant family set up and advocated nurture of these patients via activity and discussion rather than the traditional physical treatments the medical world favoured at the time. Loach introduces this as Janice's first treatment after her parents seek help professionally and cast a real psychiatric doctor, Mike Riddell, to play  her doctor on the film and to coax semi improvisational encounters between him and the cast. However Janice's plight is further increased when the hospital refuse to extend Riddell's contract and she is placed into another doctor's care who believes in treatments like ECT and the chemical cosh.

It's a deeply tragic polemical story that unfortunately still has a great deal to say about the treatment and stigma of mental health, but it is actually far more to do with the suffocating effects of an all too strict, and hypocritical family upbringing has when it relies too heavily on traditional values. The title is after all Family Life and the irony becomes just as clear as the Laingian concepts and beliefs at its heart. Loach makes no bones about his belief that society will ultimately fail and indeed is throughout the film failing Janice, but his belief that she was failed from the off by her parents is more crucial. The film explores how repressive and damaging parental love can be on their offspring's sense of self when they refuse to see a child as anything other than an extension of themselves in a most effectively disturbing and poignant manner.

It just narrowly misses out on perfection for me because I think Malcolm Tierney's character Tim, Janice's boyfriend, is a touch too aloof and wishy washy in the film. He comes and goes to give her intelligent and tought provoking pep talks about breaking out from the norm or rescuing her from her institutional tormentors, but the viewer never really gets a grip on him as a 3 dimensional person (unlike the other three key characters) nor does Loach ever bother to depict him as such - for example, we never see how Janice's abortion effects him, if indeed he was the father? Tim's little more than a cypher, a light at the end of a tunnel promising what life could be if everyone stopped being so determined to bury Janice. But whether that life could be as tantalising as it seems is never realistically explored because he's kept on the sidelines.

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