Posts Tagged ‘Ken Loach’

Modern marketing being what it is, it’s a safe bet that you can tell a lot about the target audience for a movie from the trailers that run in front of it: to put it another way, horror movies are preceded by horror movie trailers. I think most people, given a list of the trailers showing before an unidentified movie, would be able to have a decent stab at the genre of what was to follow, unless it was some kind of weird genre-mashing oddity.

So let’s have a go: the four trailers are as follows. A ‘quality’ drama about an idealistic lawyer confronting racial inequality in America. A ‘quality’ drama about an idealistic lawyer confronting corrupt big business in America. A low-key, character-based film about ordinary people dealing with potentially terminal illness. And something about racing drivers. (By ‘quality’ drama, by the way, I mean something intended to win kudos and potentially awards as well as simply making money for the studio.)

What would you think these were running in front of? Clearly something aimed at bien-pensant grown-ups (all that social comment and political idealism), along with people who appreciate authentic drama (the focus is on character rather than genre). The thing about racing drivers is obviously an outlier and a bit of a red herring, but you do tend to find this kind of blanket advertising appearing when a studio has spent a lot of money on a film and is slightly worried about getting it back (the film in question is the forthcoming Le Mans ’66, aka Ford v Ferrari).

I think my thesis does hold together, as all these trailers preceded Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, a film using a low-key character-based drama to make very serious social and political points. (It also features people driving quite quickly, but I doubt there’ll be a significant cross-over audience between this and Le Mans ’66.) Loach has been doing this sort of thing for well over fifty years now and shows no signs of losing his fire or commitment: this doesn’t feel like the work of a director in his eighties.

Kris Hitchen plays Ricky, husband and father of a family who fall into the ‘just barely managing’ category. (It is mentioned in passing that they lost their chance to own their own home as a result of the financial crash, and that things have been difficult ever since.) Formerly in the building trade, Ricky has decided to make a career change and is signing on as a ‘franchisee’, driving for a big delivery company. Ricky is keen, clearly desperate for the work, and perhaps not all that bright – he either disregards or doesn’t understand the ominous barrage of management-speak his supervisor, Maloney (Ross Brewster) hits him with as part of the recruitment process. He is not being hired, but onboarded; he doesn’t work for them, he works with them. None of this seems to matter to begin with, but already you fear for him.

His initial problem is raising the money to buy a van, which entails selling the car of his wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood). She is a home carer, visiting the sick and elderly in their houses, and the lack of her own transport is a major issue, but she reluctantly agrees in the hope it will lead to something better. She is on a zero-hours contract too, of course. Things are all right to begin with, although the relentless grind of working thirteen and fourteen hours a day, six days a week, soon begins to take its toll. However, their teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone) is talented but has no prospects, and his restlessness and frustration soon begins to get him into trouble with the authorities. The fact that Ricky and Abbie never see him properly only compounds this problem, and this is before Ricky is obliged to confront the realities of his new position: he has no entitlement to time off, is liable for hefty fines if he misses his delivery deadlines, and is personally liable for what happens to the contents of his van. The job that was supposed to give the family security is tearing it apart.

Well, it’s a Ken Loach movie, so you know what to expect before turning up: Loach isn’t going to entertain you, he’s almost certainly going to get political, you’re going to be made to think, you’re probably not going to emerge skipping and whistling when all is said and done. You know this is not going to be a heart-warming slice of life, but something which will most likely become extremely bleak well before the end. And so it proves, broadly speaking. You might expect the fact that Loach’s M.O. is so predictable to start working against the movie and make it less effective – I went in with my shields already raised, so to speak – but the remarkable thing about Sorry We Missed You is that it managed to get to me anyway. Loach’s thesis is very clear from the start – zero-hours contracts and the ‘gig economy’ are just devices to strip the most vulnerable members of the workforce of their rights, allowing their de facto managers to retain authority while disclaiming any responsibility for the people who work for them. (I have spent most of the last ten years on zero-hours contracts, but I’ve been lucky enough to (mostly) work for managers who treat people as people; this film has made me all the more grateful for that.)

However, the punch of the film doesn’t come from this (although some may still find the film a bit too didactic and self-righteously on-the-nose), but the simple, domestic scenes of the family together, snatching moments of happiness, but slowly beginning to turn on each other out of sheer exhaustion, frustration and stress. It is heartbreaking to watch: I have seen films about homeless children in Syria which felt less emotionally wrenching than this one. This is raw, no-frills film-making – it is all about content, rather than style – and in places Loach’s decision to cast non-professionals in some of the roles looks a little questionable. But he has discovered, amongst others, Debbie Honeywood, who gives one of the most affecting debut performances I can remember seeing.

The decision to focus on the domestic effects of the family’s situation does give the film its power, and keeps it from being too obviously a piece of agitprop – but on the other hand, it also prevents it from discussing the root causes of the situation and possible ways of ameliorating it, as this would involve being much more overtly political. Strip away the family drama – and, to be honest, some slightly contrived plotting does threaten to tip it over into melodrama here and there – and you are left with a film about workers’ rights. The main ongoing threat to these is surely the ongoing act of national self-harm this country is currently embarked upon, but Sorry We Missed You never addresses this, or even refers to the issue. As a result it feels like a film cursing the darkness with great passion and intensity, not one which even suggests there might be candles we could light. Still, an extremely powerful and moving drama.

Read Full Post »

With Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 we once again depart from the arena of film as a form of entertainment – this movie does not set out to brighten your day, make you laugh, or provide you with any kind of respite from reality: quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a film with an agenda and an axe to grind, it’s entirely partisan and very forthright about it. As a result – and especially considering the subject matter involved – this is a film which is going to repel large numbers of people simply because of its nature. To talk about it solely in terms of its merits and flaws as a piece of cinema is likewise to almost miss the point of it.


Although, as the title suggests, The Spirit of ’45 is at least partly about Britain in the years immediately following the Second World War, it is also really about the state of the country today. The film’s thesis is that the first Labour government, elected in 1945, brought about one of the greatest and most positive transformations in the country’s history, creating the NHS and the welfare state, nationalising utilities and transport, creating masses of decent, affordable housing, and so on. (The film’s contributors go into some detail concerning the awfulness of slum life in the 1930s – this is very much Road to Wigan Pier territory.)

This is attributed to the sense of national unity and empowerment created by the country’s successes in the war, and the belief that things really could be changed for the better, and the film is utterly unequivocal in presenting these reforms as a wholly good thing. Extracts from the Labour Party Manifesto are reverently recited, and no-one has a bad word to say about any of it, just as the later section of the film covering the rolling-back of much of this work by the Thatcher administration pulls no punches in portraying this as a wholly retrogressive and socially destructive undertaking.

Well, my personal politics are – broadly speaking – very much on the same wavelength as those of the makers of this film, and I agree with most of what they suggest here. But for me the film doesn’t directly address one of the more insidious consequences of the Thatcher era, which is that mainstream British politics are now almost entirely bereft of ideology. Voters aren’t asked to choose between genuinely different viewpoints and principles any more – at an election, you’re not making a philosophical statement, but choosing which person you believe will be a more competent administrator. Thatcher, with the aid of the massively Rightward-leaning UK press, managed to shut down this whole area of debate, leaving the British Left cowed and reluctant to declare itself as genuinely socialist: ‘socialist’ has become a word with overwhelmingly negative associations in British mainstream politics.

The Spirit of ’45 opts not to address this, in favour of recounting more concrete examples of the negative impact of Thatcher. But I think this is a mistake – if the film wants to be a wake-up call for young people today, a reminder of what their grandparents and great-grandparents achieved in the name of Socialism, then it has to acknowledge that this flavour of politics has a massive image problem at the moment. But it seems oblivious to this, just as it seems almost reluctant to engage with a wider audience beyond the Left-leaning faithful. As I say, I’m sympathetic to the film’s agenda, but even I found a lengthy disquisition on the benefits of regulating the labour market for dock workers rather dry and unnecessarily detailed.

And, as with all films like this, I think including a few contrary or neutral voices would have increased its effectiveness considerably. There are problems with the concept of the NHS, just as there are issues with the idea of a universal welfare state – but the film doesn’t even acknowledge these exist, let alone engage with them. It’s very easy to instinctively demonise the Right, much harder to critically examine the capitalist position and produce arguments to debunk it – and the film opts for the first course.

This is a film with its heart in the right place, that talks a lot of sense about many issues still relevant to our lives today. If the rebirth of socialist thinking which it seems to be fervently hoping for comes about, no one would be happier than me. But I don’t think The Spirit of ’45 is going to be the instrument of that change (I can’t imagine what could be, but that’s another set of problems), simply because it does not seem interested enough in reaching for an audience beyond those who already agree with it. Laudable, but very worthy: comfort viewing for old-school Lefties.

Read Full Post »

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published December 21st 2006: 

One of the reasons I came to Japan in the first place was to try and get a different perspective on the world, to put England and my life there in a different context. But for some reason, every time this seems to be happening, I am inordinately surprised. It is very peculiar.

It happened recently while watching Ken Loach’s award winning The Wind That Shakes The Barley (Japanese title: God knows what, but thanks to my much-improved mime skills I was able to get a ticket anyway). This film has enjoyed a strikingly generous run in one of the Chjba cinemas. I suspect it was rather less accessible in England for all sorts of reasons. (Though it is the only cinema I’ve ever been in where access to the theatres is via a lift.)

Cillian Murphy gives a tremendous performance as Damien, a young doctor in 1920s Ireland. The film depicts the Irish people as enduring relentless, savage brutality from the occupying British troop and Damien eventually decides to abandon his medical career and join the armed struggle as a member of the IRA. (You can probably begin to see why this film has had a tough time getting shown in the UK.) Although an initially reluctant soldier (and his decision to join up does seem a little arbitrary) he soon becomes a dedicated fighter for the cause. As the struggle continues, he finds himself forced into acts he would once have considered unthinkable.

While I have strong reservations about certain aspects of this film, it is an outstanding piece of work – intelligent, well acted and, in places, profoundly moving. On the surface it is straightforwardly pro-IRA and anti-British, but the script is subtle enough to suggest that Damien is as much brutalised by the violence he perpetrates as by that which he endures from the British. It’s a personal tragedy that resonates strongly in this context.

As this is a Ken Loach film, it’s not a total surprise that he portrays the most sympathetic IRA members as foot soldiers in the socialist cause. Some of the most compelling sequences in the movie depict the Republican movement fracturing as realists who just want the British out and idealists who want the country completely remade squabble angrily – and it’s of course the idealists who are shown to be the most dangerous opponents.
‘I hope this Ireland we’re fighting for is worth it,’ Damien says wearily, just prior to committing the film’s key act of violence, and such is the power of his performance that he retains your sympathy throughout.

This is obviously a politically-aware and engaged movie, which is of course another way of saying that it’s completely one-sided and has a hell of an axe to grind. Its beef is of course with the British, who are demonised almost beyond credibility. The Black and Tans are depicted almost exclusively as vicious psychopaths. Lip service is paid to the idea that they are also the victims of violence, and there’s a startling confrontation between Damien and an English officer making this point, but mostly they’re just caricatures. Tellingly, every time the IRA do something that risks losing audience sympathy (and this obviously happens a lot!), very shortly afterwards the British are shown doing something even more unspeakable. (There’s a torture scene that makes the knacker-beating sequence in Casino Royale look like something from a Disney film.)

I’m English, and my home town was bombed by the IRA when I was a teenager, but I’m ashamed to say that my knowledge of Anglo-Irish history is sadly lacking. But I know enough to recognise a polemic when I see it, and almost certainly more than the average Japanese person. At the end of the picture, on the way down in the lift I could see at least one audience member had been reduced almost to tears, by a film which I would have to describe as biased and misleading. Good film-making has power, and I suspect this person’s view of this subject has been permanently coloured by the movie. Is this movie therefore an example of artistic irresponsibility? I’m really not sure, but I suspect it’s something that would have troubled me far less had I seen the film back in England.

As it is, Ken Loach has made a fine film, but one that struggles with a key issue in modern world affairs. Just because a military occupation is arguably unjust or immoral, it doesn’t necessarily mean the people violently resisting it are not terrorists. Or, to put it more succinctly, it’s possible to have a conflict where both sides are in the wrong. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Read Full Post »