The Unloved. Dir. Samantha Morton. ICA Films. 2009.

The Unloved. Dir. Samantha Morton. ICA Films. 2009.

The Unloved. Dir. Samantha Morton. ICA Films. 2009. 150 150 Katie Goody

The Unloved, Samantha Morton’s semi-autobiographical debut film focuses on Lucy (Molly Windsor), an eleven-year-old girl from a broken home who is violently abused by her father at the beginning of the film. Following this heart wrenching sequence, Lucy is taken into care where she is alienated, despite becoming attached to Lauren; a teenage girl also residing in the care home. The film proceeds to reveal the corrupt nature of the care system, which is as unsettling for the audience as the abuse Lucy receives from her father. Her subsequent experiences force her to retreat away from the internal confines of the home, out into the external world. She is also drawn back to her mother and father’s houses in an attempt to create a safe domestic situation.

Lucy’s childhood perspective acts as a vehicle for critiquing the care system and the failings of parenthood. As her innocence is diminishing, she yearns to occupy a safe space away from the threat of humanity. Lucy momentarily escapes by aligning herself with the animals that she observes. The cat later on in the film occupies a safe space within her mothers home. This is symbolic as Lucy longs for a unified, nuclear family, but she is sent back into care after being rejected by her mother.

Morton addresses the issue of abuse through the lens of British social realist cinema. She is reinterpreting the already established generic tropes, influenced by realist directors such as Tony Richardson, Andrea Arnold, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. Morton employs stylistic techniques inherent to this genre, such as static framing and long tracking shots, which emphasise Lucy’s isolation. The symbolic use of animals allows the audience to experience Lucy’s ‘otherness’, which is emphasised by her ability to enter into a fantastical and spiritual realm within familiar every day spaces. Brunsden informs us that: ’despite clearly being conceived by its producers as a film…Morton chose television for a first screening because of the wider, domestic audience it would attract’ (1). By screening the film in the privacy of the audiences’ home — a personal and intimate space, The Unloved encourages a more personal and active response to the issues addressed. As the film shows that the people around Lucy intrude upon her private space, it seems appropriate that this film should enter the audiences’ home as a social intrusion that forces us to confront the tragic consequences of institutional failings. 

The genre sheds light on the things that are culturally defining for Britain. It also delves into the secrets, taboos and horrors of the every day. Armstrong has commented that: ‘better than any other genre, social realism has shown us to ourselves’ (2). British realism aims to narrativise the every day, particularly working class life. Lucy grapples with the plight of her every day life in an attempt to preserve her own innocence. What we see is her freedom being overwrought with the tensions created by her social situation. The audience long for her to retain her innocence and be alleviated of her circumstantial misery, as Morton shows that Lucy is able to creatively and spiritually connect with animals, art and literature. Ultimately the film gives us a greater insight into what is going on in reality, urging us to become more socially aware.

As mentioned formerly, Lucy is subject to violence by her father (Robert Carlyle) as she returns to his house having forgotten to buy his cigarettes. As further punishment, she is made to sleep at the bottom of the stairs like an unwanted dog, showing immediately that Lucy is undomesticated. In the following sequence, she enters the lounge and is captured in a shot reverse shot, revealing that she is observing a painting of a stag in a forest. The working-class environment is presented as uninviting and bleak, which is starkly contrasted with the beauty and enchantment of the painting, creating a sense of misplacement. The internal, physical environment is uninspiring, but this painting allows her to envisage a world beyond the confines of these walls, as the stag is a signifier of supremacy. The stag belongs within this painting (a high art form) and to its natural environment, unlike Lucy who does not belong to the internal environment that she is placed within. The stag is distant and fading, but it also presages the loss of her father. 

As the deer is in its natural habitat in the external world of the painting, Lucy is able to romanticise about the space that she sees, offering psychological escape. The internal confines of this whole sequence emphasise Lucy’s entrapment in her father’s domain. She looks out from the frame of the room into the camera, in the same way that the deer looks out of the frame of the painting. Lucy and the painting are framed by the television, meaning that Lucy, the stag and the viewer all become static images that are framed by their circumstance. The audience come to the realisation that we are all physically entrapped by the social circumstance that we are born into. Lucy is only able to suspend her circumstantial misery through exercising her imagination, prompted by momentary observations of animals, or encounters with animals. This is significant autobiographically to Samantha Morton, who in the interview with the guardian (see below) is seemingly hindered by her past experiences, despite all attempts to creatively escape through acting and directing. 

Click here for the interview with Samantha Morton 

In another interview, she discusses the way that sound exemplifies Lucy’s isolation in the film:

“When children are abused their spirit and their body are separate in some way, and what used to happen to me would be like I am watching it from the corner. You are ‘in it’ and then shown the reality of it…in a trance…sound means you can’t take it any more.” (3) 

This personal reflection allows the audience to comprehend why we may struggle to completely understand certain moments of intensity in the film. For example, when the music builds to a crescendo, it offers Lucy no sense of release, so the sound takes on a meaning that can only be explained by someone that has had similar experiences. Throughout The Unloved, the overwhelming aural experience the viewer is subjected to, shows that Lucy is not really ‘there’ corporeally. She disassociates from the reality of her situation by creatively imagining she is somewhere else. Morton has demonstrated that she has personally (as a director and actress) coped with her difficult past through her creativity. 

Lucy’s ‘otherness’ is also derived from the spiritual connection she has with the animal aesthetic. One night she flees from the care home after seeing Lauren and a residential care worker’s sexual encounter. The audience experience Lucy’s alienation through tracking shots as she ventures further into the suburbs. In these shots she is at the forefront of the frame and the cityscape is in the background, showing that she physically ascends above the institutions that are unable to protect her. When she enters a graveyard, the music builds as she sees a doe. The aesthetic experience self-consciously refers back to her observation of the painting, signifying to the viewer, that after she experiences trauma in some way she retreats in order to preserve her childhood innocence. This draws upon the generic representation of female entrapment, and a longing to connect with the external world. Lucy’s way of escaping is through animal identification, much like Mia in Fish Tank, as she identifies herself with the entrapped horses as a way of escaping the harsh reality of her life. 

When Lucy and the deer are away from the perceived threat of humanity, they are both unrestrained. As the doe does not recoil, Lucy gazes upon it and demonstrates an affinity with the natural world. The picturesque environment temporarily distracts her from the plight of her life, and the non-diegetic chimes of the harp detract from the bleakness of the graveyard. She is able to effortlessly connect with the doe as it naturally grazes in this external space, but she does not connect with any other character in the same way. Her ability to connect with the animal allows us to read her as ‘other worldly’ as she resides in a society where children and animals are unimportant aspects of life. The film is set at Christmas time, and uses traditional symbols of Christmas, such as the deer, to emphasise Lucy’s longing for a traditional, nuclear family. The bleakness of the setting that the deer is placed in shows that Lucy’s traumatic experiences have corrupted her innocence, meaning that she is unable to perceive the deer as magical, instead it becomes associated with the death of her childhood. 

Her desire for a nuclear family unit is emphasised by her longing to reconnect with her mother (Susan Lynch). It demonstrates that she wants to return to a state of innocence and naivety. However, the distance created by the shot reverse shot in her mother’s lounge disables any hope of rekindling her family. This is further exemplified when Lucy gives her mother a gift, receives nothing in return and then turns to stroke a cat in order to distract her. The cat is not only physically above her in the frame, but her mother privileges the cat above Lucy in allowing it to live with her. The presence of the cat appears to contribute to Lucy’s desire to remain in this house, as she is able to identify with animals. As the genre of this film typically focuses on the working class, it plays on the absence of the domestic animal, as the focus is on the self. Morton does not delve into Lucy’s mother’s issues, but it is evident that there are personal issues preventing her from nurturing her child. From Lucy’s perspective, this presence of the animal suggests that her mother is more socially mobile, implying that she could protect her from violence and corruption. Instead she is rejected by her and told never to return to her home, thwarting what Lucy envisioned for her future. 

Animals in The Unloved are employed in safe spaces where Lucy can be protected, away from the inadequacies of social institutions. The deer allows Lucy to explore the external world in order to momentarily exercise her freedom through the imagining of a life beyond the bounds of her circumstance. The cat demonstrates that her mother could have potentially saved her from more violence and abuse, but she is unable to cope because of her own personal problems. Lucy cannot sustain a life where she is free to explore, because she is always dragged back into the care of somebody that fails to protect her. By putting this film out in the public domain, awareness can be raised about the importance of preserving childhood innocence. In a less problematic circumstance, human-animal relationships would not just be a spiritual way of escaping the harsh realities, but an integral part of life.

British social realist films as early as 1947 — It Always Rains on Sunday dir. by Robert Hamer — employ animal imagery as a way of exploring social confinement. Hamer’s caged bird is a symbol of female entrapment; the female characters and the bird are restricted by these internal spaces that they are forced to occupy, like Lucy in The Unloved. Morton and Ken Loach (Kes, 1969) explore the themes of freedom, possibility and loss through looking at the relationship between child and animal. Fish Tank (dir. Andrea Arnold, 2009) and The Unloved have similarities as Mia attempts to escape her internal situation through retreating to the external world. She also attempts to find a vocation that gives her release, which like Lucy’s interest in the fantastical world, leads to inevitable failure. The fantastical and mythical elements employed are reminiscent of Pans Labyrinth (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2006), as the audience are drawn into Ophelia’s fantastical world, where animals send her on quests, allowing her to retreat from the violence reality of her life.

(1) Charlotte Brunsden, ‘It’s a film, Medium Specificity as Textual Gesture in Red Road and The Unloved’ in British Cinema and Television, 9.3 (2012) 457-479 (p. 646) 

(2) Richard Armstrong, ‘Social Realism’, The Most ‘Typically British’ of all Film Genres, (2003 <https://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/1037898/> [6/01/2014] (para.1)

(3) https://www.theguardian.com/film/audio/2010/feb/17/film-weekly-podcast-samantha-morton Thursday 18 February 2010 [accessed 23/11/14]

Filmography: 

The Unloved dir. Samantha Morton (2009)

Kes dir. Ken Loach (1969)

Fish Tank dir. Andrea Arnold (2009) 

Pans Labyrinth dir. Guillermo del Toro (2006)

It Always Rains on Sunday dir. Richard Hamer (1947) 

Further Reading: 

https://www.theguardian.com/society/video/2014/sep/12/samantha-morton-sexually-abused-child-care-homes-video-interview Friday 12 September 2014 [accessed 23/11/2014]

Jonathan Burt, Animals in Film (London, Reaktion, 2002)

Charlotte Brunsden, ‘It’s a film, Medium Specificity as Textual Gesture in Red Road and The Unloved’ in British Cinema and Television, 9.3 (2012) 457-479

Bibliography:

Armstrong, Richard, ‘Social Realism’, The Most ‘Typically British’ of all Film Genres, (2003 <https://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/1037898/> [6/01/2014] 

Charlotte Brunsden, ‘It’s a film, Medium Specificity as Textual Gesture in Red Road and The Unloved’ in British Cinema and Television, 9.3 (2012) 457-479

https://www.theguardian.com/society/video/2014/sep/12/samantha-morton-sexually-abused-child-care-homes-video-interview Thursday 18 February 2010 [accessed 29/12/14]

Jonathan Burt, Animals in Film (London, Reaktion, 2002)