The pair swap tips on how to cope with the dark times and reminisce over Cantona’s goals, cueing several stirring montages of balls hitting the back of the net. Eric might tire a little of the Frenchman’s gnomic advice (‘I’m still getting over the seagulls one!’), but an amusing, touching friendship emerges that slowly nudges a suicidal man back towards the solidarity of the workplace and the terraces – a fading solidarity that the film both celebrates and laments.
But there are two, not one, intimate, winning relationships at the heart of this film – one imagined, the other real. There’s the rapport between postie and ex-footballer, and there’s the softly-softly reconciliation of Eric Bishop and his ex-wife Lily (Stephanie Bishop), a woman he hasn’t seen for 20 years after their youthful marriage turned sour. They meet cautiously, initially for practical reasons as they share the childcare of their granddaughter, but later they begin to inquire into each other’s lives and try to work out what went wrong many years before. Their scenes together are the film’s highlights, and both Evets and Bishop – neither of whom have had such demanding acting roles before – give honest and warm performances.
The beauty of Loach’s film is that both these relationships feel equally relevant to Eric’s life and Loach’s examination of it. The winning power of ‘Looking for Eric’ lies in this meeting of the magic and the mundane. It’s mainly a film about men – men who fail themselves, like Eric, and men who fail society, like the hoodlums we see tempting Eric’s sons into crime in the film’s less successful climactic storyline, which involves angry dogs, kidnapping, YouTube and gunplay, and feels a little out of place after the film’s quiet tête-à-tête. But then Loach and his writer Paul Laverty are nostalgists for lost causes, and this is their chance to grieve again for the changing world of work.
Their last film, ‘It’s a Free World’, mourned a more moral approach to employment; here they mourn the lack of opportunities for Eric’s sons. But ‘Looking for Eric’ is more of a cheerful wake than a funeral. Football might be corporate, Eric might be going gaga, teenage boys might be all adrift, but what win out are humour, love, friendship and the support of your mates. It’s a Loach film all right – with added optimism and laughs.