Children making false accusations of sexual abuse has become a weirdly common trope in big-screen drama, with last year's remarkable The Hunt sketching out a high watermark. Rufus Norris uses such an accusation to kick-start the disturbing action of his feature debut, which follows the overlapping stories of three families living on the same unremarkable North London street.
Eleven-year-old Skunk (newcomer Eloise Laurence) witnesses her brutish neighbour Bob (Rory Kinnear) beating up the sweet but unstable boy next door, Rick (Robert Emms), an attack which sets in motion a chain of unfortunate events. Her father Archie (Tim Roth) is adjusting to life as a single dad, while their housekeeper Kasia (Zana Marjanovic) is in a troubled relationship with local schoolteacher Mike (Cillian Murphy), who in turn is struggling to discipline Bob's ASBO-courting daughters.
Norris achieves real intrigue in the early going, sketching out the simmering tensions beneath the suburban surface with subtle glimpses. There's increasingly a sense of too many characters spoiling the broth, though - Murphy's role could be completely removed without the narrative being affected at all - and Broken is at its best when it focuses on Skunk and her father. Laurence is, by design, a beacon of hope and innocence in an increasingly broken story, and her scenes with Roth are natural and touching without ever veering close to "cute movie kid" cliché.
But the uneven ratio of characters to caricatures is problematic, with Kinnear's comically thuggish patriarch coming off worst of all, while the treatment of Rick and his gentle parents (Denis Lawson and Clare Burt) feels close to sadistic at times. Unintentionally or otherwise, Mark O'Rowe's script conflates mental illness with inescapable suffering.
What's interesting is the suggestion that it's the street itself - the toxic Bermuda Triangle that exists between these three houses - that's spawning the cycle of misery, and you spend much of the film hoping that at least one of the families will get the heck out of dodge.
It's an intriguing setup, but there's no subtlety in the sadness and the third act descends into such self-indulgent melodrama that you become too numbed to feel anything, one hideously awful event piling on top of another and another to no particular avail. Roth is charming and Laurence is an intriguing young talent to watch, but Broken is a shaggy dog story wallowing in emotions that it seldom earns.