The Snapper (1993, Stephen Frears)
Is it all right if a lot of this review is in the first person? OK. One of the formative experiences of my movie-buff hobby was my dad’s acquisition of digital cable — a highly new-fangled gadget in rural NC circa 1999 — when I was in high school. This allowed me to actually sit and watch a lot of the films I’d long read about and move past the fascinations I already held (Hitchcock and Kubrick, mostly). Early on during this period I resolved to try to watch a movie every night, a tradition I managed to hang on to for roughly a year and a half. It was in this context that I first saw Annie Hall, Freaks, Rebel Without a Cause, Brazil, M, Jaws (believe it or not), The Graduate, Metropolis, Dawn of the Dead, Network, The Silence of the Lambs, and on and on. But the strange thing is that although those all turned out to be among my favorite films in years to come, the UK production The Snapper is the film whose appeal to me most accurately foretold how my aging and maturity would affect the way that I thought of movies, characters, and “life” on film. Along with The Simpsons, I suppose it’s what permitted me to discover how much heart and sincerity matter to me.
Problem was, I had no idea what this eye-opener was. I’m sure I briefly noticed on the Time Warner readout that the title was The Snapper, but that’s far from a memorable title, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the slang (Dublin-speak for “newborn baby”); I looked it up at the time and saw references to The Commitments, a film I hadn’t seen but was familiar with, and was entranced by its gravity and good-natured sense of familial love (something that was strongly absent from my slowly breaking home at the time). I felt genuinely moved by it at an age when “moved” wasn’t something that I often thought about being, but for years thereafter all I could truly remember was the image of a man drinking alone in a bar and something to do with a pregnancy of dubious origin. Some years later, poring over Maltin’s Movie Guide in the years before I knew how to Google exhaustively enough to find exactly what I was looking for, the film’s title came jumping out at me, and I was surprised to discover that it shared a director with High Fidelity. It says a lot about my tastes at the time that this impressed me then, and it foreshadows my later tastes that even the wisp of a memory about this film was enough to make me well up a little. I acquired the DVD soon enough after identifying the picture.
I want to tell you that it lived up to my memory and that it will change your life if you see it, or something. That’s not quite accurate; it’s a cute and wonderfully lived-in film, that latter virtue something that’s become important to me perhaps precisely because of The Snapper, but I can’t help believing that I probably inflate its greatness because of the important role it played for me. If you want a truly staggering character-driven film, I would probably now steer you first to Broadcast News, Bad Girl or The Best Years of Our Lives… but I also doubt very much that many of you would fail to be charmed by the town, the scandal and the pure affection conjured up and enlivened by writer Roddy Doyle and Frears here. The plot here is basic, as plots in movies about real people natuarlly should be: a mildly hedonistic young woman who still lives with her large family becomes pregnant and is unwilling to disclose the identity of the father, setting off a citywide wave of gossip; ultimately, the film is just the story of said pregnancy and how it alters the lives of the woman’s parents and siblings. It has no great twists or uproarious “situations,” it’s very plainly a story about real working-class people living normal lives, encountering bumps in the road and pressing on. Its humor is all natural and therefore utterly ingratiating: facial expressions, the quickly gathered nature of the human occupants of the story, and the character interactions and sheer sense of joy and pathos. That to me is what separates comedy that mildly amuses me from comedy that I find vital and life-affirming.
Because its characters are so real and charming, The Snapper gains much of its mileage from their vividness and in turn the vividness of the performances. The standout, inevitably, is Colm Meaney as the kind-hearted but beleaguered patriarch who’s both a little too aloof for his own good and unquestionably adores and is devoted to his wife and family — those were his eyes and his slight downward glance that stuck with me all those years, and they do indeed leave enough of an impression to haunt you. That’s primarily because he probably is a dead ringer for someone you know, and feels uncannily like someone you love or have loved once. What a shockingly powerful thing for a movie to be capable of! No amount of CGI pyrotechnics could bring that aching sense of identification. The same goes for the rest of the cast: Tina Kellegher is marvelous as the pregnant and mortified Sharon, happily not at all judgmental of her youth, and I’m especially fond of Ruth McCabe, whose Kay reminds me so much of an ex-girlfriend’s mom that I kind of feel like I can hear her yelling at me, and yet I also want to hug her.
The Snapper‘s twin achievements, then, are the realness of its family — there are other kids crawling about, all with little asides and moments that seem felt — and a sense of place that’s astonishingly complete and flavorful for such a brief movie. Hanging over everything, in part thanks to the grainy film stock used (this was originally a TV movie in the UK before being picked up by Miramax and released theatrically here), is a sense of unstated melancholy that simmers in the many chaotic moments — pregnancy is not a peaceful thing, nor are the happy and horrifying revelations that come with it — and takes over in the quiet ones. There’s something unwaveringly poignant about Meaney’s entire performance, whether obsessively reading pregnancy books or picking fights with barflies who insult his daughter.
But the movie has aged quickly, and so have I — even since the last time I saw it, around 2005. It says something about the culture then versus now, but much more about me then versus now, that while I still find the film lovely and adore everything about the central characters and the way they’re explored, I now realize it’s more than a little disturbing how the film skirts so quickly past the issues of both rape and abortion — even if the latter does somewhat fit with the family’s attitudes, the former is hard to look past: Sharon was unambiguously sexually assaulted while drunk and then abandoned by her assailant like a piece of dirt, and the film acts as though it’s mostly the source of a big joke and a lot of macho overprotection. It demeans the whispering neighbors more than the rapist himself. Yes, it’s from another era and feels older yet, but twenty years isn’t that long ago, and the movie lets Georgie off the hook too easily, I feel, while continuing with its feel-good exuberance (even if it does have considerable emotional weight).
Nevertheless, in general I feel about this the way I wish I felt about the Mike Leigh films I’ve seen: the people live and breathe but the story has levity and charm, and it inhabits and lovingly enacts a world that I long to revisit whenever I can. There’s a lot of The Simpsons in this — Bart is even mentioned by name at one point — which won’t make sense if you know The Simpsons primarily for anything past its first seven or eight seasons, ever since which it seems to have been written by displaced fratboys and robots. But in its prime, the show was a heartfelt and adoring portrait of a real, working family who looked out for each other and came across as citizens of the same world we occupy. I feel as if that sense of identification is something we don’t get nearly often enough, least of all in films that also offer as many laughs and as much warmth as this one.