Sunshine Cleaning, directed by Christine Jeffs (2009). This article was first published on Culturewatch, and is republished here by permission. © Tony Watkins and Pete Hartwell, 2009 The Lorkowskis are a dysfunctional family. Rose (Amy Adams) is a thirty-something single mother who works as a cleaner and is having an affair with her old high…
Eric Bishop, brilliantly played by Steve Evets, is an unassuming, introverted postman in Manchester, who is burdened with a great deal of emotional baggage. Director Ken Loach describes him as, ‘an intelligent man who suffers from panic attacks and it’s really interfered with his ability to stay in a relationship. His response to it is just to put his head in the sand, go out with the lads, go to the games, have a drink and not deal with it.’
When his life goes into meltdown, he has little in the way of inner resources to cope. After a panic attack one day, he ends up driving round and round a roundabout the wrong way, eventually being halted by an inevitable crash. His friends at work rally round to support him, led by Meatballs (John Henshaw) who turns to self-help books from the library in an attempt to build Eric’s self-esteem. It’s not enough, though, because his problems spring from a broken heart.
Thirty years ago, Eric fell in love with Lily (Stephanie Bishop) when they met at a dance. They were devoted to one another, but once they were married and had a baby, Eric found himself struggling with the responsibility, as well as with relentless pressure from his overbearing father. At the baby’s christening, he suffered his first panic attack, and a short while later he walked out on Lily and baby Sam, and never returned. Somehow, Eric maintained contact with his daughter, and they have a good relationship, but Eric and Lily have not seen each other in years. Now Sam (Lucy-Jo Hudson) is a single mother herself and needs Eric’s help with looking after her baby, Daisy, while she completes her studies. The trouble is, this means collecting Daisy from Lily. It’s too much for Eric to handle, having spent the intervening years feeling torn apart by his feelings of guilt, and the love for her which he still feels so strongly.
To add to the complication of his life, he has another failed marriage behind him. Chrissie walked out on him seven years ago, leaving him with two boys from her previous relationships, Ryan (Gerard Kearns) and Jess (Stefan Gumbs). Eric has brought them up on his own, but now both of them are testing his patience to the limit. Loach emphasises that, ‘because at heart [Eric is] a very generous person, when they were younger he did have a reasonable relationship with them. But as they’ve become teenagers they do what teenagers do, which is if they see a weakness they exploit it. They destroy him. He’s left with a big house that he can’t manage, and of course chaos breeds chaos.’
The panic attack brought on by seeing Lily brings Eric to the brink of despair. Screenwriter Paul Laverty says, ‘He not only feels he is losing control of everything around him, but much more terrifying he feels he can’t even rely on himself. When Little Eric looks himself in the eye he confronts a lost man, heading for the precipice.’ Eric smokes a spliff and addresses his life-sized poster of his great hero, Eric Cantona: ‘Flawed genius, eh? Flawed postman, me. . . . Have you ever thought about killing yourself? Who loves you? Takes cares of you? . . . Have you ever done anything you’re ashamed of?’ Eric is astounded when Cantona appears in his room to give him advice and build his self-belief. This apparition may be a figment of Eric’s imagination, but it nevertheless enables him to begin to straighten out his thinking, get life back into perspective and find the courage to act.
One of the key challenges for Eric is to take risks in order to move forward. This starts with Cantona encouraging Eric to confront the past, no matter how fearful of doing so he may feel. ‘Without danger, we cannot get beyond danger,’ comes the gnomic advice. Eric takes his first step by opening a trunk containing mementoes of his time with Lily, and the two men reflect on how beautiful memories can be some of the hardest to deal with. They don’t talk about why this might be. Part of the reason, in Eric’s case at least, is that great memories throw the mistakes, unkind acts and conflicts of the past into even sharper relief, and drive home the sense of what has been lost or squandered. Eric’s fear is created by his sense of shame over the way he has acted, letting his one true love – and eventually everything else – slip through his fingers. He confesses that, ‘a lot of mistakes have been made; A lot of water has gone under the bridge.’ The real issue, however, is not mistakes, but failing to deal with them. He has made things so much worse by his refusal to communicate, to ask for forgiveness or to seek help. For Paul Laverty, this is at the heart of the film:
Past mistakes may fester; hurt and blame can tumble over each in an endless cycle that can still cast a shadow on our present. I thought about our fantastic gift of memory that can make 30 years ago burn with the intensity of yesterday. I reflected on how we can get ‘stuck’, what makes for change, and what a complex endeavour it is to understand each other. What is hidden, and what is just too painful to confront? I wondered about our capacity to forgive, not just the other, but ourselves.
Eric’s past is a festering sore because he has never dared to endure the pain of confronting it in order to resolve it. Again and again, Cantona pushes him to take risks, with aphorisms like, ‘He who is afraid to throw the dice, will never throw a six.’ When the great footballer speaks about his own fear – that the chanting of his name by sixty thousand fans would stop – Eric is astonished. His realisation that his hero is just an ordinary man, who was prepared in game after game to deal with his fear and take risks, seems to empower Eric to begin to take control of the direction of his life. He take tentative steps towards Lily, and attempts to bring some order to his home. Gradually, with some major setbacks, he begins to recover a long-lost ability to act, rather than merely react.
Eric is longing for redemption: for forgiveness and acceptance from the woman he has always loved, for freedom from fear and panic attacks and for a sense of well-being that comes from a life at peace rather than in chaos. Love, freedom and well-being are fundamental aspects of an integrated human life. It perhaps sounds trite for me, as a Christian, to suggest that Eric really needs to look further, to an even deeper redemption that comes only from God. Yet that is precisely what someone like Eric does need. The longings that he experiences are reflections of more profound yearnings which lie deep in every human heart because we are created to be in intimate relationship with him. If that is so, our lives are incomplete while that potential is unrealised.
What stands in the way of Eric finding limited redemption is the same as what prevents him finding ultimate redemption: himself. It is ironic that, even though Eric has problems with his self-esteem, he has a problem with pride, just like everyone else, which holds him back from doing the right thing. The core issue is that fears rejection. His logic is twisted by his emotions, but he seems to feel that as long as he avoids seeking reconciliation with Lily, he has only his sense of guilt and loss to live with, and he fears adding to that the certainty of being rejected.
He also fears risking any approach towards Lily because he never trusted her to forgive him. Although after Eric left her, she sent him a card with a dove of peace on it, expressing her complete love for him, he evidently could not imagine that her love would be great enough to forgive him. It suggests a deep sense of personal inadequacy, due in no small measure to his father. It is not until he is prepared to humble himself to seek Lily’s forgiveness that he will discover how real, how unconditional, her love for him still is, and in the process he will find himself. If that is true in human relationships, it is even more true of our interaction with God. Indeed, God sent not merely a token of his love for us, not a sign of peace, but came himself in the person of his Son. He stepped into our world, not as an imagined hero dispensing enigmatic advice, but as a real man. He came to make peace with us, despite all our weaknesses, failures and hostility, through dying on a cross and rising again. Eric’s story, like so many stories of human love amid our brokenness, echoes something of this greater story.