Three Sacks Full of Hats

By Debbie Anzalone | Drama
A man returns to see his dying alcoholic brother and face his parents.

Mick has returned to his family home after a long absence. Escaping his family, he moved to London and has stayed away for some time. But now his brother Sid is in the hospital. Sid is in fast decline, thanks to his lifelong abuse of alcohol.

But returning home stirs up old tensions in the family, as Mick is painfully reminded of why he left home. In the last days of Sid’s life, Mick and his parents must face up to their shame and denial as they confront the familial influence on Sid’s imminent death.

Beautifully observed with a powerful sense of compassion and care, this short drama — written by BAFTA-winning screenwriter Geoff Thompson and directed by Debbie Anzalone — examines the destructive power of family and how the bonds of love can often become chains that we must break to move forward in life.

Patience and a sometimes painful intimacy are woven into all levels of the storytelling, beginning with the look and feel of the visuals, which have an observant naturalism. Somewhat documentary-like in its approach, the camera is characterized by a willingness to be still and let moments, feelings and responses unravel, and the pacing and rhythms of the editing respect this meditative approach as well.

The forward momentum here isn’t generated by external events, but by the conflict and emotions that bubble up between these estranged and troubled characters, which are laid out with great care by a spare but finely honed script. By focusing on Mick and his reactions to the family he thought he distanced himself from, viewers are allowed to go deep into the family ecosystem, seeing the web of denial, pain and anger that enmeshes all members of the family.

In delineating such deep emotional terrain, the performances become crucially important. All actors here — Warren Brown, Tom Meeten, David Sterne and Alison Steadman, all of whom are seasoned veterans of British television and film — are uniformly excellent, with performances that are precise, fluid and responsive. They collectively manage the balance between achieving that peculiar familiar attunement that marks a family but also hinting at how they’re connected with undercurrents of resentment, anger and sadness. When Mick arrives from London, he becomes a catalyst for these long-simmering dynamics to come to the surface, both to traumatic and cathartic effect.

Powerful, honest and ultimately deeply moving, “Three Sacks Full of Hats” is about alcoholism and the way it eats away at our lives. But it has the emotional wisdom to understand that addictions and dysfunctions of all kinds too often stem from the deep dysfunction and traumas of our families, creating a long-running legacy that becomes harder to break with each generation.

But such a cycle can be broken, as Mick comes to learn, as he stops avoiding or denying his pain. Instead, he comes to face it, accepting his family for who they are and then letting go of the anger and grief he feels. From that inner peace, Mick — and perhaps all of us who grapple with familial pain and trauma — can move forward into lives that are true of our own making, with choices that come from a place of freedom and acceptance.

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