The Sullivans are an Irish family living in a dismal English town during the Depression. Ian Hart plays the patriarch, a sympathetic working-class man who loses his job when the wretched factory where he works closes down. Hart is good enough that he'll probably become a big star when he's of retirement age, since that's what happens to quality British actors who lack Ewan MacGregor's pretty-boy good looks (see Ian Holm, Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins).
After the Jewish factory owner closes shop, Hart has to sell his belongings to a Jewish pawnbroker and borrow money from a Jewish money lender. Meanwhile, his daughter Teresa goes to work as a house-girl for a wealthy Jewish family. Humiliated by all this, Hart becomes increasingly anti-Semitic until he turns to fascism and violence.
This is obviously a difficult story to tell, and director Stephen Frears gives a mature and careful form to it, slowly chipping away at the sympathy he builds up around Hart in the early part of the film. It's fortunate that Hart is up to the task of playing this role, because a lesser actor would have simply come off as evil all the way through, or would have been unable to make the transition to the angry, bitter man Sullivan becomes.
But Sullivan's story is only one of three focal points in the film. Much of the movie centers on his 6-year-old son Liam, who is preparing to make his first holy communion. Here, Frears has a field day making fun of the silly and superstitious kind of Catholicism that was taught to children back in the day. Liam is so terrified by the stories of eternal torment and sin that he is frequently struck mute, hissing and stammering when confronted by any authority figure.
The odds on finding an actor who's young enough to play this part and talented enough to play it well are about as good as the odds of finding a pro-Taliban article in the New Republic, so I guess one can't be too disappointed in the school-pageant performance of Anthony Borrows, but it is reasonably distracting. Mostly, when cued to act he just makes the world's cutest eyes and puckers his lips. I'm sure this works when he wants to get his mother to give him candy, but in a film it just comes across as begging the audience to love him.
Still, having him stare with frightened cuteness and terrified cute-osity as his teacher tells him that his soul is "filthy! filthy! filthy!" and that he should think of the afterlife as something like accidentally burning his hand in a candle flame, only way, way worse, seems reasonably appropriate. He only becomes annoying when he leaves the classroom and the Mr. Cuteness face stays with him.
Luckily, he's only a part of the film. The best bits focus on Teresa, Liam's teenage sister who's off to her first job. She works for the Samuels, who live in a beautiful house that, unlike all the other locations in the movie, employs a decorating scheme that uses colors besides brown, auburn, chestnut, ochre, taupe and sepia.
The Samuels seem like a dream to Teresa. Mrs. Samuels is well-dressed, kind, soft-spoken and generous, whereas Teresa's mum is poor, loud, angry and necessarily stingy with what little she has. Teresa remains in quiet awe of Mrs. Samuels even as she aids her in hiding her love affairs from Mr. Samuels.
Teresa is played by newcomer Megan Burns, who is at least marginally better than Anthony Borrows. While most of the film sees her with a single expression--something like "Gosh, am I really in a movie?"--she does pull out the stops when necessary, exploding with frustration at her inability to tell anyone about the luxury, politeness and vague decadence that she envies so much in the Samuels' house.
Liam is more the work of the Stephen Frears who directed The Snapper and The Van than it is of the Frears who directed High Fidelity and Prick up Your Ears. If you liked the former works you'll probably love Liam, because it's all that and more. If you're more in the camp that thinks Frears' best work was in Dangerous Liaisons and that his Irish-family films are too maudlin, you should probably give Liam a chance anyway, because here, through careful pacing and staggering of his three stories, Frears manages to tap into the sentiment vein without bleeding all over the screen.