Samantha Morton, perhaps best known to North American audiences as Agatha, the sad eyed pre-cog in Steven Spielberg’s super science fiction thriller Minority Report or perhaps for her work as the mute girl in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown for which she was nominated for an Oscar, makes her directing debut with The Unloved an intensely personal film in which the actress draws on her past with an unflinching eye. To say Morton is courageous is an understatement, as the actress-director uses her past in group homes and foster homes, as a ward of Nottinghamshire Social Services, from infancy to eighteen, in this powerful film about a young girl obviously based on Morton. That she turned out as she did is a testament to her great strength of character.
Living in a violent home presided over by her angry father (portrayed with intense rage by the great Robert Carlyle in his best role since Trainspotting), Lucy is rescued by child care authorities who place her in the care of the government, meaning a foster home. Moving from a home of rage into the unknown, the young girl must adapt to her new surroundings with uncertainty and a degree of fear. Carefully navigating the children’s protection system, she becomes a wizard at understanding the many laws which protect her rights, leaning also to move on instinct. Her life is governed by isolation, which becomes a means of protection more than anything else, and a way to stay clear of the older, much more hostile and dangerous kids in the system. They are oddly bound together by a common thread: They all feel unloved, and unwanted. We see Lucy begin to love herself and find some peace in her world, and it is a joy to behold.
In a wonderful performance Molly Windsor dominates the film as Lucy – capturing the fear of a young girl living in terror of her father, and then when taken from that home, placed in others where the fear is a very different sort. As directed by Morton, the performance is authentic and raw, the sort of work we might find in a film directed by Terence Davies or Ken Loach, who Morton drew upon for this.
Carlyle (a superb actor) has worked consistently since his breakthrough over here in Trainspotting. Be it the odd horror film Ravenous (which I loved) or his work on television as Hitler, but he has not done the sort of work we expected from him after Begbie. He does here, as a man consumed with rage that spills over into his family life. He is an abusive lout who takes all of his anger and hate out on his family. He is the worst sort of human being, and like Mo’Nique in Precious (the best film of TIFF 09), gives a brave and powerful performance as the sort of parent who abuses their children because they can.
Morton has stated that she has just one thing to give to her directors, “Honesty. Masasive honesty and truth.” She has brought that to her work as an actor and now, in shocking fashion, brings it to her work as a director.
In this, the year of the woman director, Morton adds her name to the list of the greats. A difficult, demanding, but quite extraordinary journey.