On March 31, 1995, at a jam-packed, flashbulb-popping press conference, the beguilingly gifted Eric Cantona addressed the gathered throng. Earlier in the day, an appeals court had reduced his sentence to community service for the assault charge arising from the striker’s infamous kung-fu kick of a racist Crystal Palace supporter in January of that year.
“When seagulls follow the trawler it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”
And with a simple “Thank you very much” following that single enigmatic sentence, the Manchester United legend stood up from his seat and left his advisors, journalists and world football to ponder what the hell he might have meant as he waited out a planet-wide ban from football through September 1995 by learning the trumpet.
Fittingly, in “Looking for Eric,” the latest film from the outstanding Ken Loach, Cantona becomes the mentoring guide through the existential crisis of Eric Bishop, a middle aged Manchester postman and divorcee enveloped by incapacitating depression. His two teenaged sons defy him. While his oldest, adult daughter adores him, a favor she asks forces him to confront the heady mixture of feelings he has towards the wife he cowardly left decades before. “It doesn’t really matter anymore,” his ex-wife Lilly says wearily. Eric would rather Lilly detested him than simply suffer him with indifference. Overwhelmed with regret and self-loathing, Bishop has become adrift from his family, friends and co-workers. He barely has the energy or interest to roll a spliff. But when he does, the illusory Cantona appears in Bishop’s snug bedroom, which is a shrine to the footballing enigma dominated by the iconic poster of the triumphant Cantona, with his signature upturned collar, striking an imperious stance in the moment after his immaculate goal versus Sunderland in 1996. Together, the two Erics open a trunk of mementos Bishop kept closed securely at the foot of his bed and begin the process of helping Bishop recover himself.
The film contains many of Loach’s familiar themes. Vulnerability hounds the protagonist whose natural steel has become dented. As in “Raining Stones” and “My Name is Joe,” a well-meaning working class person is sucked into trouble not entirely of their making and seemingly beyond their immediate control. (Bishop’s eldest son is the instigator.) Loach and Paul Laverty, his regular screenwriter for the past fourteen years and seven films, still imbue the story with the recognizable ebbs and flows of ordinary life while never pandering to patronizing tones. “Looking for Eric” teems with the real-life combination of humor and pathos. And the first steps of a second chance with Lilly are handled truthfully and sincerely. Like “Riff-Raff,” the film also masterfully creates a Greek chorus of a sort, with genuine camaraderie among Bishop’s fellow postal workers who are a likable blend of personalities and viewpoints.
The camerawork is furnished by another Loach stalwart, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, a superb technician at jimmying emotion into the cramped hallways, bedrooms, and kitchen of Bishop’s home. An Oscar nominee for his work on “The Hurt Locker,” Ackroyd excels in the ambiance of confinement, where space is suffocating and intimate.
As with the vast majority of Loach’s movies, the film is centered on a beautiful central performance, and Steve Evets is a revelation as Eric Bishop. Possessing a sunken cheeked, craggy face, he handles the darker moments with absorbing sadness as his facial features are marked with shadows like looming clouds. But Evets illustrates Bishop’s passion and enthusiasm with equal depth. He exhibits great zeal, especially when he recalls the first night he met Lilly at a dance contest 30 years before. And he’s a defiant, protective dad. It’s a believable, complex portrayal. In a stellar debut film performance, Stephanie Bishop gives the present-day Lilly grace and strength. The cast of workmates are a jovial, animated, and opinionated collection, especially John Henshaw as Meatballs, his closest friend, who habitually buys self-help books so Bishop’s mates can assist their friend during his trying time. (A visualization exercise where a half dozen of his work pals imagine themselves as Sammy Davis, Jr., Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Frank Sinatra and Cantona is a comic free-for-all.)
Retired since 1997, the 43-year-old Cantona in his post-football life has become, simply put, one of the coolest dudes on the planet. And he’s emerging as a notable presence as an actor; Cantona was quite good as the dashing, pretentious director in 2008’s “French Film.” In “Looking for Eric,” he’s funny, charming, sexy, and wise. (He’s also only seen when Bishop is alone.) The imaginary Cantona follows Bishop on his rounds and keeps him company during his soul searching; the two actors develop an engaging relationship. (Cantona even divulges that his most cherished moment in football was a pass, not a goal.) There’s sweetness to several of their scenes, especially when Cantona spouts proverbs in French, only for Bishop to exclaim exasperation at the English translation. Seagulls, indeed.
The film culminates with a rousing “Operation Cantona” spearheaded by Meatballs and coach loads of supporters which is anything but a fishing expedition. “Looking for Eric” is as close to a feel-good movie as Loach has made but still retains the integrity and authenticity which makes his films so powerful and clarifying.