Variety (Jul 3, 2007, by Eddie Cockrell)
[Summary: Involving drama is impeded by well-intentioned earnestness in the sincere class meditation "Born Equal." Pic about the fates of various transient residents of a London homeless facility feels too soft-spoken for aggressive theatrical play, suggesting tube shelters and a modicum of vid salvation.]
Recently sprung jailbird Robert (Robert Carlyle, low-key) is plot's entree to an urban bleak house where every sparse apartment houses a story of yearning and hope. Haunted by the apparently spur-of-the-moment stabbing that prompted his incarceration, Carlyle begins a mysteriously aggressive courtship of newly arrived Michelle (Anne-Marie Duff), battered and pregnant, even as he searches the city for the mother from whom he's apparently estranged.
Meanwhile, boundlessly rich businessman Mark (Colin Firth, intense) begins to feel that money isn't everything. After a confrontation with an angry homeless man results in massive guilt, he begins spending long evenings away from his pregnant wife Laura (Emilia Fox) to minister to those less fortunate than himself. This leads him to troubled 17-year-old runaway Zoe (Nichola Burley) and an emotional entanglement to which there is no satisfactory answer.
Finally, Nigerian maid Itshe (Nikki Amuka-Bird) makes a fateful decision to fund her imperiled father-in-law's visa to escape persecution at home, only to lose the respect of her husband Yemi (David Oyelowo) and the trust of her condescending yet well-meaning employer.
Robert and Mark finally cross paths in a random, violent encounter. There's precious little redemption to be had for any of these tortured souls.
Though dignified and focused, helmer Dominique Savage's well-modulated screenplay lacks any raw tension or explosive surprises that might spring from class inequality or the peril of mean streets. This lends each story a schematic inevitability that leeches the whole of any lasting resonance. In the end, pic is just too polite.
Carlyle does the best he can with a character whose mysteries are never fully explained, while Firth's Mark would be a beacon of liberal initiative were he not so gruff and stuffy. Duff gives the pic's most satisfying perf as a frightened mother determined to escape abuse.
The Observer (Dec 24, 2006, by Kathryn Flett) Warning: Contains Spoilers!
Born Equal was very, very serious. It was The Way We Live Now, Miserablist Division, an unseasonable confection of poverty and homelessness and domestic violence, gift-wrapped in liberal middle-class guilt and gilt-edged city bonuses. It starred the gifted Anne-Marie Duff in a raw and tender performance as Michelle, a heavily pregnant abused mother of a little girl, Colin Firth as Mark, a wealthy soon-to-be-father embracing a mid-life crisis, Robert Carlyle as Robert, a freshly released con searching for his mother, and David Oyelowo as a Nigerian immigrant struggling to reunite his family. There was excellent support from Emilia Fox as Mark's pregnant wife, and Nichola Burley as a homeless teenager who becomes the object of Mark's ill-advised foray into charity work.
I say ill-advised because, among the many implausible strands of Dominic Savage's polemical drama, the most implausible of all was Mark's transition from city boy to outreach worker, under the guidance of a miscast Julia 'Nighty Night' Davis (it's not that Davis can't act, it's just that every time she adopted her social worker 'caring' face I wondered who she was plotting to murder). I'm sure there are hedge fund managers out there who do fine things for charity (indeed you can currently watch the rich dispensing their largesse to the needy in Channel 4's The Secret Millionaire), but I imagine they have neither time nor inclination to hang around in underpasses prodding piles of sleeping bags and just have their PAs set up great big standing orders instead. Nothing wrong with that, either.
Firth has gone on the record to describe his character as 'naive', but that would be the least of it. And though Carlyle was compelling—the tight coil of unfocused rage ever ready to spring even as his relationship with the vulnerable Michelle developed with unaffected realism and charm—when he did finally snap and wrought the inevitable brutal chaos, Born Equal tipped over into total melodrama.
Having discovered that his mother had died while he'd been in prison, Robert decided, somewhat illogically (or at least it seemed that way because we were denied a context in which to understand how close he may have been to his mother), that his loss was so great he could not only no longer love Michelle but must cruelly reject her hard-won trust—when realistically he would have probably have decided he couldn't afford not to love her. Though we knew Robert had killed a man, when he killed Mark it didn't ring true. A more successful—and more emotionally potent—ending might have been to leave viewers with the potential threat of Mark's death, but also the possibility of Robert's redemption.
Much of Born Equal was improvised, but with actors of this calibre, who are going to convince whether or not every word has been scripted, improvisation is just another, slightly self-important, route to establishing a kind of authorial authenticity. In this respect Born Equal never stood a chance, and certainly never amounted to more than the sum of its juicy parts, and it didn't make me feel particularly guilty about not spending quality time hanging with the homeless. Have a Very Plausible Christmas yourself.
Metrolife (Dec 18, 2006, by Keith Watson) - 4 out of 5 stars
To have or not to have
As modern city dwellers, we’ve all hardened our hearts to the sight of the homeless huddled in sleeping bags in shop doorways. Be honest, do you even clock them as human beings any more? It’s a world of haves and have-nots, as Born Equal, a drama fueled by pent-up rage at the randomness of it all, illustrated with a power that was too close for comfort.
Steering clear of the rub-thumping and stereotypes, writer/director Dominic Savage created a world of living and breathing reality, rather than case histories, as the action eddied out from the lost souls taking refuge in a hostel in the cold heart of London. Whether it was Anne-Marie Duff, a pregnant mother hiding out from an abusive husband, or Robert Carlyle as a recently released prisoner struggling to find respect in the world, these were people you completely believed in.
Representing the ‘there but for the grace of God’ attitude in all of us was Colin Firth’s filthy rich City chap. Though his belated attack of social conscience took a bit of swallowing, his words pulled you up short: ‘I’ve got pretty much everything I need...but I walk past people who’ve got less than nothing and there’s something wrong with all that.’ But there were no easy solutions on offer: drawn into a world way outside his comfort zone, Firth character found himself in too deep with a teenage runaway, a downward spiral that sent his life careering out of control.
Which made Born Equal tough viewing on a plasma screen with a glass of Pinot Grigio in hand.
Sunday Independent (Dec 17, 2006, by Cathy Pryor)
When I first came to this country in 1999 I used to give money to rough sleepers all the time. Then I stopped because I got used to them. Now I don’t even notice them. And that seems to be how it is for most Londoners.
So it’s almost with a twinge of anxiety that I watched Born Equal, in which the main character decides that he can’t go on ignoring the plight of the homeless....[plot clipped]
Born Equal was written and directed by Dominic Savage, who has made a number of dramas on social issues including last year’s Love + Hate and 2002’s Out of Control. He apparently asked the actors to improvise some of the dialogue, and while this led to a lot of stumbling and hesitation, particularly from Firth, it lends an air of rough authenticity to the drama that goes well with the theme.
Sunday Mail (three of five stars)
Colin Firth, Robert Carlyle, Anne-Marie Duff, Emilia Fox: the kind of stellar cast that only the richest or most morally worthy projects can boast. In this case it’s the latter, a multi-stranded drama passionately concerned with the contrasts between wealth and poverty in London. Juxtaposing Firth’s wealthy city trader with the lives of homeless people, there’s no doubting the sense of grit and approaching tragedy as the separate stories come together, and this attempt to peel back the city, à la films Crash and Dirty Pretty Things, is hugely ambitious television. It’s a shame, then, that the social realism is let down by the script and its perfunctorily drawn characters.
The Independent by Gerard Gilbert
The BBC’s No Home season has marked the 40th anniversay of Cathy Come Home with some varied and interesting programmes. It comes to a head this Sunday with an all-star Dominic Savage drama, Born Equal. Savage is a writer-director who enjoys extreme contrasts....His new drama immediately throws us into the massive inequalities to be found in London today. We cut from Robert Carlyle’s ex-jailbird counting pennies in his cheerless hostel room to Colin Firth’s banker spending nearly £500 on a shot of vintage brandy in order to celebrate the annual bonus....
As with Love + Hate, and his earlier films Out of Control and Nice Girl, Savage has taken up the mantle of Ken Loach, but with its multi-stranded storylines and stellar cast led by Colin Firth, this film reminded me more of Richard Curtis, and, in particular, Love Actually. I suppose you could call it Inequality Actually, although the working title, London, hints at Savage’s greater ambitions. The irony is that there is little sense of a wider community in Born Equal, and although it was clearly shot in London, and looks like London, this just doesn’t feel like London. And despite some admirable performances (the best coming not from the big names, but from the newcomer Gemma Barrett as Colin Firth’s smitten teenage runaway), what should have been a shattering resolution to this curate’s egg of a drama ends up feeling somewhat contrived.
Evening Standard (Dec 15, 2006, by Imogen Ridgway)
Gently, realistically presented yet at the same time extremely powerful, Dominic Savage’s new drama is about the “hidden homeless” staying at a hostel in Swiss Cottage. Swiss Cottage, of course, isn’t exactly a poor part of the capital, and much is made of the contrasts between the enormous houses and the sometimes tragic situations of the hostel residents.
Colin Firth stars as Mark, a ludicrously wealthy City boy with a social conscience, who begins helping homeless people but—perhaps predictably—finds himself getting emotionally involved with a young Northern girl, Zöe (Nichola Burley, from Goldplated, if you were one of the three people who watched it). But that’s not the only plot. Also living in the B&B are Michelle (Anne-Marie Duff), running away from her violent partner; Robert (Robert Carlyle), out of prison and looking for someone; and Yemi (David Oyelowo), a Nigerian asylum-seeker.
It’s not just the fantastic cast and necessarily gritty stories that draw you in, though. Born Equal was improvised and unrehearsed, and its naturalistic dialogue is a pleasant shock to the system after the clanking speech patterns of EastEnders and the like. Firth and Duff in particular are superb—their gradual comprehension of new situations is terrifically observed. Carlyle plays, as he often does, a man, and is mesmerisingly scary.
Radio Times (by Alison Graham)
I suppose it's commendable that at a time when its potential audience is groping around in the loft for Christmas decorations or baking industrial quantities of mince pies, a major broadcaster puts out a grim treatise on the inequities of British social justice. Born Equal, from writer Dominic Savage, doesn't herald the week before Christmas with cosy images or familial warmth. It's a brutally honest tale of homelessness, disaffection, exploitation and violence, as seen through the eyes of a string of disparate men and women. Among them are a young, pregnant, abused mother (played with heartbreaking fragility by Anne-Marie Duff); the troubled ex-prisoner she befriends in a hostel (Robert Carlyle, who's so good at restless, barely contained fury); and a disillusioned City worker (Colin Firth). There's no common thread, though there's some interlinking of stories. And the performances are excellent. But Born Equal sometimes feels like a lecture by Savage aimed at everyone watching in a comfortable home.
Daily Mail – 4 stars
Television that grabs within seconds is a rare beast, indeed—and here is one of those creatures. While it certainly won’t be winning any comedy awards, this hard-hitting, London-set drama about social inequality in today’s Britain is TV with teeth, and award-winning writer and director Dominic Savage may need to clear more space on his mantelpiece. It’s quite a cast, too—Colin Firth, Robert Carlyle, Emilia Fox and Anne-Marie Duff all make themselves known in the first five minutes, as does the premise...It’s pretty grim—but it’s also unmissable.
The Guardian by WH
This multistranded drama on London life sails close to replacing actual characters with a set of socio-economic demographics, but is saved by some very good performances. Anne-Marie Duff stands out as a heavily pregnant battered wife who seeks refuge with her daughter in a hostel, where she meets Robert Carlyle’s well-meaning but violent ex-convict. Elsewhere, millionaire banker Colin Firth is suffering a guilt-induced mid-life crisis, and David Oyelowo’s Nigerian journalist is working as a cleaner to escape a vengeful militia. Ultimately, one is left wondering if the unrelenting misery serves much of a purpose.
The Times (Dec 16, 2006, by Mary Ann Sieghart)
Darcy in the underworld
In a city like London, we all lead parallel, and often adjacent, lives. At the very top—the overclass, if you like—there are the investment bankers and hedge fund managers who don’t go anywhere near the services the rest of us depend on. They don’t use the Tube or—heaven forbid—the buses. They send their children to private schools and use private healthcare. The only privations they have to share with the rest of humanity are the traffic jams down the M4 on a Friday evening, as they head for their country homes; unless they have a helicopter, that is. Most of us are located close to the middle, holding down middle-class jobs and living in middling homes—neither the Holland Park mansion nor the grotty council flat. But well below our relatively comfortable lives are people who have not even a grotty council flat to their name: an underclass of folk who are forced by circumstance either to sleep on the street or in hostels for the homeless. It is the collision of these two worlds, the top and the bottom, that forms the premise of Born Equal, a new drama by Dominic Savage, whose gritty TV films—including When I Was Twelve and Out of Control—have all tackled contemporary social issues.
The play will be watched for the cast alone. Colin Firth plays Mark, the hedge-fund manager who, to his credit (and the surprise of his colleague), opts early in the plot to take the Tube rather than a taxi to his plush house in Swiss Cottage. Round the corner from his home is a hostel that houses Robert (Robert Carlyle), newly released from jail, and the heavily pregnant Michelle (Anne-Marie Duff), who has escaped from her abusive partner. In the same hostel is a Nigerian family whose father was forced to flee his country because of death threats. Mark’s social conscience leads him to become embroiled in the lives of the hostel-dwellers, with disastrous consequences.
Would he have done better to walk on by? Maybe. Maybe not. One of the merits of this drama is that the morality is deliberately ambiguous. We feel as sorry for the rich wife whom Mark neglects as we do for the 17-year-old homeless runaway whom he befriends. And we feel sympathy and suspicion in equal measure for the ex-con who shares her hostel.
The acting performances are superbly naturalistic. There was no script; all the cast were expected to improvise and the drama was shot without rehearsals. This gives a freshness and believability to the dialogue, and is particularly effective for Firth, whom we are used to seeing in starchly buttoned-up period roles. Even the children perform well.
And yet . . . there is a heavy-handedness about the plot that makes you want to go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” We all know that some men beat up their partners, that some asylum-seekers have fled murderous regimes. We all know that very rich people lead privileged lives. And the postwar urban planning in London that deliberately planted council estates in even the smartest of boroughs means that the well-off and the underprivileged can sometimes live in the same street.
The recent murder in West London of the lawyer Tom ap Rhys Price by two knife-wielding thugs brought home this clash of cultures and values. But Savage’s film has no prescription for bridging the gap. Watch it for the stars and the acting, by all means, but don’t expect any deep insights or useful answers.
TV Times (5 stars by OG)
Brilliant performances light up this dark drama...With completely improvised dialogue and superb acting, it's a mesmerising, if bleak, portrait of inequality in modern Britain.