Man about the House

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Review of 'Pure', director Gillies Mackinnon

Gillies Mackinnon's new film 'Pure' opens with a ten year old boy, Paul, preparing a fix of heroin. He puts it on a tray with flowers and cigarettes, and takes it upstairs to his mother as 'breakfast in bed'. Paul thinks that all he is doing is helping his mum with her 'medicine'. She is sick--so sick she has forgotten it is his birthday. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the film, in which Paul's mother Mel's drug addiction is seen through his eyes. And this is what sets the film apart from other 'drugs movies'--we see how a child deals with the situation of a parent being on drugs.

The film is set in the shadow of West Ham's Upton Park stadium in east London. Paul looks after his mother and his younger brother, Lee, after the death of his father from a heart attack. He sees himself as 'the man of the house', and is trying desperately to keep the family together. Mel has gone to pieces after the death of the children's father and plunged into addiction, assisted by Lenny, a friend of the family who is also the local dealer and pimp.

Over the course of the film, Paul comes to realise that Mel is a heroin addict, and sets out to try to save her from her addiction. But he is thwarted in his attempts, mainly by Lenny, who keeps Mel in drugs for a price, and by the fact that Mel is terrified of confessing to the authorities that she has a problem, as it will mean losing her kids. Treating heroin addicts as criminals means that she has nowhere left to turn.

Those who are supposed to help care little for the individuals involved, preferring only to get a 'result'. The policeman who seems to care about Paul and Mel's situation is only interested in his promotion. The offices of the social workers who are to decide if Mel and her children can stay together still contain the outdated 'Just Say No' propaganda of the Tory years. And Paul and Lee's grandmother is desperate to take the boys away to live with her--she hated Mel before the boys' father died and she became addicted. The only person Paul feels he can turn to is Louise, a young waitress at the local cafe, who is also a heroin addict. In the end he resorts to drastic measures to try to save his family.

Harry Eden, who plays Paul, gives an amazing performance as a child forced into taking responsibility beyond his years, and holds the film together brilliantly. His fear at seeing his mother turning into a monster in front of him is palpable. Molly Parker as Mel does a great job of capturing the complexity of her character--how can someone love their kids so much and neglect them so much at the same time? The music by Nitin Sawhney reminds us that we are following the action through the eyes of a child, and the contrasts of colour and sound give us a glimpse into Paul's world.

There is very little sensationalism or melodrama in Pure, as sometimes happens when the subject of drugs is dealt with by television and films. It is harrowing, but it looks beyond the 'junkies bad' stereotypes to see the people who are really affected by heroin addiction, without offering any easy answers.