In the United Kingdom exists a system of child welfare. That is to say, like all first world countries, there is a governmental body whose sole task is to look out for the wellbeing of children. The UK government has a strict system, and one outcome of children being removed from a family is forced adoption. Forced adoption is exactly what it sounds like: if the state deems the parents unfit, they will adopt the children out to a family they believe are.
This practice has generated fierce criticism, especially from those who believe that the system errs far too often on the side of adopting the children rather than reuniting the family. Spoiler alert: Listen is made by people who share this belief.
The film follows Bela (Lucia Moniz), Jota (Ruben Garcia), and their three children. They are immigrants to the UK, and they are, in a word, struggling. She works as a maid and he as a labourer, but with her pay being meagre and his being inconsistently delivered, they are often forced to shoplift food just to survive.
This all comes to ahead in the space of a few days where their deaf middle child Lucy (Maisie Sly) finds her hearing aid broken (which for some reason the NHS won’t replace) and has some mysterious marks appear on her back. Accusations of abuse are made, and the three children are ripped from the family.
The remaining hour or so of the film is entirely Bela and Jota trying to get their kids back. It’s an infuriating tale, with social workers forbidding them to speak any language other than English or even in sign language with Lucy (for fear they might plan an escape). They are stonewalled at every turn until they are met by a rogue social worker played by Sophia Myles, who helps them navigate the system.
The standout performer is Lucia Moniz (probably best known to audiences outside of Portugal from her turn in Love, Actually) as the long-suffering Bela. Moniz dials it to eleven occasionally but never inappropriately, and her reactions to Jota’s far more casual responses to what is happening to them feel very human. When it comes time for her to give a big stirring speech, she delivers in spades.
While I won’t spoil the ending, I will tell you that calling it a bittersweet ending would be generous. Listen‘s director Ana Rocha de Sousa and her co-writers Paula Vaccaro, Aaron Brookner have no interest in balance in the story. The state agents in this film are callous and cruel in a system that feels callous and cruel. One of them even admits at one point that this is the way the system is designed.
There’s little exploration of why the system is the way it is, just that it exists and is bad. For better or worse, the result is that the film ends up feeling more than a little heavy-handed in its indictment of the system. On the other hand, while the story and its resolution might feel a little over the top, maybe this isn’t a story that needs to be balanced; perhaps it requires a heavy-handed portrayal to bring it further into the light.
Listen is playing at Raindance Film Festival tonight in person at Curzon Soho Cinema and online in the UK from October 31s to November 2nd.
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