Steve Jack reviews the latest film from the self-effacing firebrand and king of social realism, Ken Loach
While listening to Ken Loach speaking at the Q&A which followed the public première of his latest film, Sorry We Missed You, he appeared to me to be the film directorial equivalent of Jeremy Corbyn: softly spoken, yet with a steely determination, emanating from a burning desire to see things – and to tell things – exactly as they are, on behalf of the great many in our society without a voice.
It was fitting, therefore, that this particular Q&A – in which Loach was joined on stage by screenwriter Paul Laverty, plus four of the five main cast members – came live by satellite not from some metropolitan picturehouse in London, but from the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle – where this film, together with Loach’s earlier companion piece I, Daniel Blake, was made.
Much of the filming took place on a trading estate in Gateshead – a place, I imagine, not unlike the site where its main protagonist, Ricky, is hired (or rather ‘onboarded’) to work as a driver for PDF, a parcel delivery company. “We keep going because we’re so inexpensive”, said Loach modestly. Again, he reminds me of Corbyn, consistently the lowest expenses claimant in the House of Commons. You don’t get to make 27 feature films merely by cutting costs. You only become the master of social realism – spanning six decades – through living and breathing each detail of every domestic situation as if it were your own, and by coaxing the absolute maximum from your cast and crew.
In Sorry We Missed You, this is exactly what Laverty and Loach have done with their screenplay, direction and trademark approach. Meticulous research (they spent long days in the company of the ‘precariat’ – the self-employed workers at the centre of the story), some offbeat yet excellent casting, then shooting the script in sequence – with actors who only learn the story as they go along – brings performances that ‘come straight from their stomach’ (Loach’s words), and rich rewards for the audience.
The film takes a similarly direct approach to its subject matter: the unfairness and inhumanity of zero-hours contracts and the so-called gig economy; a surge in the working poor; and – crucially – the way these factors undermine ordinary family life. From the outset, Loach takes aim at the entire system and its inherent hypocrisy. Ricky, our likeable yet plausibly flawed hero, is told by new boss Maloney that he will be the ‘master of your own destiny’, only to be thrown a plastic bottle by another driver soon afterwards. “You’ll need this for a piss”, he says, perfectly seriously.
The inexorable crushing of such optimism and supposed empowerment by an unfeeling, ruthless system (represented by Maloney and enabled by technology) might suggest parallels with the way New Labour promised so much under Blair and Brown, yet fell so woefully short. Ordinary working people, promised a way out – from the daily grind and the worst ravages of Thatcherism – were sold a lie, much like the drivers in this film, whose rights (or rather lack of them) and vulnerabilities soon become glaringly apparent. As the writer and social commentator Aditya Chakrabortty put it, when reviewing the film for the Guardian:
“Victorian capitalism used to mangle workers’ limbs in machines; a large part of 21st-century capitalism does something less visceral but still devastating: it pumps you full of dreams of self-realisation even as it destroys your deepest notions of who you are.”
Vulnerability, in fact, is a recurrent theme, with Ricky’s self-esteem, and sense of duty as his family’s traditional provider, being dealt a series of hammering blows. Yes, there’s light as well as shade here – the family takeaway meal during which he is floored by a self-inflicted vindaloo attack is relatable as well as amusing – but Ricky’s implied impotence and loss of status in the eyes of his difficult teenage son Seb is particularly poignant, within a once-tightly-knit family that is coming apart at the seams.
Both mother and daughter play heroic roles in – just about – holding the fabric together. Ricky’s wife Abbie is a strong but sensitive care worker (played beautifully by Debbie Honeywood) who herself is finding it virtually impossible to operate within a bureaucracy that allows little room for her undoubted strengths and compassion. Indeed, this shocking exposé of the brutal realities of working as a care professional – yet being treated so poorly – in modern Britain is one of the film’s greatest strengths.
Another is the astonishing performance of Katie Proctor as young Lisa Jane, whose emotional honesty imbues some of the film’s most pivotal scenes with almost heartbreaking pathos. The day she spends working with her dad is both uplifting and tragic, mainly because we sense how fragile and short-lived this happiness will be (indeed, we soon find out it is ‘against the rules’); and the disastrous consequences of hiding her dad’s van keys – in a misguided attempt to prevent him from further suffering at work – are lived out through her genuinely heart-rending confession at the family’s kitchen table.
Ross Brewster, who plays boss-villain Maloney with some aplomb, was the only ‘star’ missing from the combined screening and Q&A I attended; yet his absence was keenly felt. While the family members were played – to some degree, at least – by the actors as a version of themselves, Maloney was a necessarily ingenious creation... assuming Brewster isn’t some kind of unconscionable bastard in real life! He is a bullet-headed emblem of a hard-nosed, no-nonsense workplace culture – lent validity by the pervasive, all-consuming competitive environment that an over-reliance on capital ultimately brings: a dog-eat-dog world which he not only completely buys into but believes is the only way to survive, and thrive.
In this world of reward and sanction, doublespeak becomes the lingua franca (remember – ‘onboarding’ rather than recruiting), as we perceive the increasingly sinister undertones within otherwise everyday language. It is in this context that Sorry We Missed You is transformed from a disarming nicety into a phrase of potentially catastrophic significance; and in which this film of the same name is elevated from minutely observed social realism to become a cinematic indictment of some of the most corrosive elements of modern-day capitalism.