A rowdy comedy-drama about disenfranchised construction workers in London, non-union, homeless blokes who use pseudonyms and live hand-to-mouth, "Riff-Raff" is a searing commentary on England's class structure. It also employs an edgy, experimental style that we only see in independent cinema these days.
The film is in English, of course, but it also carries English subtitles, since the various thick accents of the characters are at times hard for the American ear to decipher.
Though ensemble in nature for its first third or so, "Riff-Raff"
eventually settles primarily into the story of Stevie (Robert Carlyle) and Susan (Emer McCourt).
Stevie is one of the workers and initially seems to be just one of the boys, though we later learn that he is running away from family problems.
One day he happens to find a purse in the work site's trash bin. He looks in the wallet, finds an address and returns it to Susan, a nervous young woman who at first thinks he's the landlord — and she's behind on the rent.
They hit it off and eventually move in together, as things go fairly smoothly until a confrontation after Stevie finds out Susan has a problem she's been hiding from him. A problem she won't acknowledge as a problem.
These latter scenes are played well, though they occasionally sink into ordinary melodrama. But the sequences set at the construction site, with the workers verbally sparring and eventually having to confront the bosses' negligence about safety precautions, are much better.
Carlyle and McCourt are very good, and there are a number of minor players who have some nice moments, but the real scene-stealer is Ricky Tomlinson as an older worker who is the social conscience of the group. When he's not going on and on about politics, he's stealing into an unoccupied apartment for a quick bath break — only to be interrupted by a real estate agent and potential buyers.
An episodic and uneven affair, enough of "Riff-Raff" is funny and smart to make it an entertaining effort for the art house crowd.
The film is rated R for some violence, a steady stream of profanity, some vulgarity, sex, brief nudity and drug abuse.