Family: Michael Winterbottom’s Portrait of Working Class Family

Made for the BBC, Michael Winterbottom’s Family, a dark, realistic portrait of a working class family, shows again the gap between the quality and diversity of British and American TV.

The last segment of Roddy Doyle’s “Barrytown trilogy,” Family is a perfect companion piece to The Snapper, which preceded it, as the two films complement each other in sensibility and tone. A startling piece of writing and filmmaking, this 2-hour feature, compressed from the original 4-hour-TV-version, should first get a theatrical release, but an entrepreneurial distributor should show the entire work on PBS or cable.

By now it’s quite evident that Roddy Doyle is both the author and auteur of his work, for no matter who directs his stories–Alan Parker (The Commitments), Stephen Frears (The Snapper) and now Winterbottom–his distinctive voice always emerges clearly.

Thematically, Family can be perceived as a dark mirror image to The Snapper, as both films focus on the routine, everyday lives of one struggling working-class family. However, if Snapper’s tone was comic, sunny and breezy, Family is informed with a grim and somber orientation.

Social workers would have no problem labeling the Spencers as a dysfunctional family, as the clan is dominated by Charlo (Sean McGinley), a brutish overbearing patriarch, whose uneven temper is the cause for both physical and emotional abuse of his wife Paula (Ger Ryan) and children. A petty thief, he makes a living out of ripping off video trucks and stealing video equipment. Charlo can be loving and charming, though only on his terms; at home, he’s a bully and totally insensitive to the needs of his family.

Paula begins as a long-suffering wife, hoping for a better future that will terminate her hubby’s incessant philandering and violent domestic outbursts. But when push comes to shove, she’s resilient enough to fight back, take matters in her hands and even kick her hubby out of the house.

Lacking an appropriate role model, young son John Paul faces the danger of following in his dad’s footsteps. Nicola, the teenage daughter who works in a factory, is beginning to experience her emerging sexuality, which is noticed by her too watchful dad.

It’s a tribute to Doyle’s multi-layered writing that he doesn’t treat the Spencers as a clinical case in need of counseling and therapy. His non-linear narrative has no climaxes, no melodramatic contrivances–containing natural events and conversations that take place in every family.

The division of the narrative into four chapters, each devoted to a different member of the family, has the advantage of providing multiple perspectives on this group. The characters move from center-stage to periphery and back with the smooth ease that only a gifted writer and director can achieve.

First-time helmer Michael Winterbottom conveys in great detail the wrenching experience of residing in the Spencers household. There are many “tiny” moments that in their fidelity to ordinary life are priceless. It’s as if the actors got caught by the camera, which observes unobtrusively, refraining from making editorializing on the characters and their problems. For example, Paula’s segment begins matter-of-factly with a confession: “My name is Paula, I am an alcoholic.”

Hobson’s restless camera and Waite’s finely-modulated pacing underline energy when it calls for and quiet restraint in other episodes. At times, the compression of the original 4-hour-TV series into a 2-hour-feature is manifest in abrupt transitions and truncated editing.

This Family is so richly observed and so emotionally satisfying that, with some luck, it should follow Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, a masterwork shown in different lengths and versions, theatrically and on TV.