Dir: Ken Loach. UK-It-Ger-Sp. 2004. 103 mins.
Ken Loach is famous for shooting in sequence and not revealing key plot details to his actors beforehand, in order to catch the freshness of their shock or anger unfiltered by rehearsal. It's been a while since he's startled his fans in the same way. Every 18 months or so, sometimes less, we get a new slice of Loachian social realism. The only surprise in recent years has been how badly the director does foreign settings, how preacherly his politics sound when set against the backdrop of post-Sandinista Nicaragua (Carla's Song) or dispossessed Mexican communities in California (Bread And Roses).
Loach seems to have realised this too: Ae Fond Kiss (the title comes from a Robert Burns poem) is his third film in a row to be rooted back in the working-class regional British settings that the 67-year-old director does best, and his fifth collaboration with screenwriter Paul Laverty.
The film is unlikely to make anyone's Loach Top Three: a reasonably tight but ultimately rather thin ethnic Romeo And Juliet tale set in Laverty's home town of Glasgow, it has the production values of a good TV drama. Its exploration of the conflicts experienced by second-generation Asians in Britain puts the film in the same camp as East Is East or Bend It Like Beckham, but audiences in Loach-o-phile territories will be attracted less by the theme as by the director's name on the poster: in Italy and France, going along to see the latest Loach is as much of an obligation for a certain brand of left-leaning cinephile as confession for a devout Catholic.
School music teacher Roisin (Eva Birthistle) is an Irish Catholic of the lapsed variety. She teaches in a Glasgow state-funded school which is Catholic in denomination, though it also has non-Catholic students - like Tahara, a bright young Pakistani girl, whose brother Casim (Atta Yaqub) is a cool and dishy club DJ. Defending his sister from a gang of racist classmates, Casim meets Roisin and invites her to his club; the two soon have a thing going.
It's not until they go for a dirty weekend in Spain (which seems to have been scripted in to keep the co-producers happy) that Casim reveals that his parents have arranged a marriage for him with a nice Pakistani girl - in nine weeks' time.
Will love conquer all' The big dipper of setbacks and upturns that follows is powered by Casim's inability to choose between the girl he loves and the family he cannot bear to rip apart. Roisin, meanwhile, has her own problems - notably a bigoted priest (a fine cameo by British TV soap regular Gerard Kelly) straight out of The Magdalene Sisters, who refuses to rubber-stamp the moral fitness certificate that is required for those who teach in Catholic schools, because Roisin is 'living in sin'.
Irish actress Eva Birtwhistle puts in a tough and convincing performance as the stubborn, feisty Roisin. Her Romeo, first-timer Atta Yaqub, is good but not outstanding as Casim: there is a stiffness and reticence in his performance at times that, one feels, is more to do with the actor than with his character.
There are some moments of fine Loachian slapstick, and others of high drama, when the director's semi-improvisational work with his mixed professional and amateur cast pays dividends. But Ae Fond Kiss does not make the case for working with non-professionals as convincingly as Sweet Sixteen: it's altogether a flatter and less punchy experience.
Its controversial theme should give Ae Fond Kiss some TV and auxiliary cachet in the UK, though the broad Glaswegian accents, coupled with the muddy sound quality of certain scenes, may cause problems for those who have not spent much time on Clydeside. Schools (Catholic schools excepted) could go for the religious tolerance message - though teacher is going to have to fast-forward through some of the most explicit sex scenes Loach has done.
Production co: Sixteen Films
Co-prod cos: Bianca Films, EMC, Tornasol Films
International sales: The Works
Executive producers: Ulrich Felsberg, Nigel Thomas
Producer: Rebecca O'Brien
Screenplay: Paul Laverty
Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd
Production design: Martin Johnson
Editor: Jonathan Morris
Main cast: Eva Birthistle, Atta Yaqub, Ahmad Riaz, Shabana Bakhsh, Shamshad Akhtar, Ghizala Avan, Gary Lewis, Gerard Kelly