Wednesday 13 November 2019

Delivery issues: "Sorry We Missed You"

It's become a commonplace of Film Twitter snark to offhandedly declare that "Director X has made his film again". Given the notable consistency of his output over the past five decades, I suspect Ken Loach might just adopt any such charge as a badge of honour. In the half-century since 1969's Kes, Loach has undeniably shifted location (travelling West to Ireland for 1990's Hidden Agenda, to South America for 1996's Carla's Song and to the US for 2000's Bread and Roses), switched tones (coming up with 2009's essentially comedic Looking for Eric, tellingly made in the last days in the last Labour government) and moved with ease between past and present, initiating his own, more rigorous form of period drama with 1995's Land and Freedom. Yet the raw material of a Loach film has remained more or less the same: unadorned, rough-hewn realism on a socialist theme, enacted by performers sourced from outside the generally shallow casting pools of mainstream cinema. In this, Loach has displayed the same consistency many admire in Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader to whom the filmmaker has pledged his support: a tireless, unwavering commitment to the same set of principals. (Corbyn's fans frequently stitch together speeches the politician gave in the 1970s with his present-day rhetoric to illustrate how steadily he's held his line; you could, I think, do something similar with clips from Loach's 20th and 21st century output, and sense they were made by the same guy.) Central to Loach's principals has been a refusal to budge when faced with those gatekeepers who've insisted the cinema should be used as a forum for feelgood escapism; his stance was, is and perhaps shall ever remain as oppositional as any chant of "We Shall Not Be Moved".

That consistency continues, for better and just slightly worse, into Sorry We Missed You, which opens in much the same vein as its 2016 predecessor I, Daniel Blake: white credits on a black background, over which we hear a working-class man making a case for himself at interview. The advantage Ricky (Kris Hitchin) has over Daniel Blake is that, for almost the whole film, he has a job - that of a parcel delivery driver - but it's on the ultra-temporary, zero-hours contract that has been the bane of so many lives over the past decade. Having a van, in this instance, doesn't provide Ricky with mobility so much as prove a millstone around his neck: for starters, he has to buy or lease the vehicle at considerable personal cost, then meet a punishing series of targets that will be familiar to any teacher or NHS employee. Loach and regular writer Paul Laverty are here contextualising those images circulated on social media of parcels tossed onto roofs or through open bathroom windows into toilet bowls: for our couriers, scurrying around inside the click-and-collect cycles of turbo-capitalism, time really is money. While we wait for the penny to drop, Sorry We Missed You sketches a portrait of 21st century family life: Ricky's wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), a carer equally obliged to go from house to house providing services at all hours of the day, leaving their bright-as-a-button daughter Lisa Jane (Katie Proctor) and resentful, distant son Seb (Rhys Stone) to fend for themselves. Though there are jokes about Sergio Agüero (one core Loach belief from Kes onwards: football makes the world go round) and even some instant messaging, they're not so different from those snapshots Loach was taking around the time of 1991's Riff-Raff, under a similarly entrenched Tory government. The working classes are still being ground down; it's just that the bastards have changed their methods. Loach's intransigence - his refusal to let this pass, or do anything other than look it directly in the eye - is its own form of defiance.

There are, however, signs that the director might just benefit from some kind of revolution in his thinking. Laverty remains an appreciably punchy writer, but his situations can land squarely on the nose: he toils hard to give these characters a harassed inner life, but a dream Abbie recounts about drowning in quicksand is one of several points where the film tells us what's already been amply shown. Loach's fiercest critics, generally found in the right-wing press, have often accused the filmmaker of overdoing the misery in the absence of any formal flourishes. This viewer is inclined to suggest Sorry We Missed You's 100 minutes are as nothing compared to Britain as it has been under ten years of Tory rule, but that naggingly persistent rebuke did spring to mind whenever the film returns to Ricky and Abbie's front room, with its mildewing walls and single overhead lightbulb: no-one's expecting Laura Ashley on a courier's paycheque, but wouldn't someone in this household make an effort? (Loach would doubtless counter with a question of his own: well, where would they find the time?) Similarly, given that we learn Ricky has been charged with safe delivery of such aspirational items as mobile phones and passports, it seems odd that everyone he meets on the doorstep should be crumpled or crushed, or otherwise struggling to stay upright. I, Daniel Blake laid out a surer sense of the sociopolitical state-of-play, where everybody stood, no matter that it was within a system that damned us all. Sorry We Missed You struck these eyes as culpable of a weird erasure, so determined to restore some visibility to the working classes that it offers no glimpse of their oppressors.

For all that, it still works as drama, steadily accumulating harsh truths that outnumber and overwrite any false or laboured notes; when the pieces of the plot line up into a downward spiral, as they do in the final act, we're left in little doubt of how quickly a man can fall without a safety net in place to catch him. Fifty-plus years of filmmaking have left Loach uniquely placed to finesse the script's rougher edges, or to finesse them into exactly the rough edges he wants. The film's strongest suit is Hitchin, foursquare convincing from the off, where I felt longtime stand-up Dave Johns feeling his way into playing Daniel Blake. Ricky takes a measure of pride in declaring himself a grafter in that first scene, yet Loach coaxes from Hitchin a wiry brittleness that speaks to what it is to graft in the modern age, without certainty, security or unions. Ricky's determination to save face in that brusque male manner is touching, and Hitchin develops a persuasive bond with the nurturing Honeywell, but there's only so much care Abbie can provide. When Ricky is set upon and humiliated in the final reel, it's really no more than a debilitating literalisation of what the system has been doing to him all along. One of Loach's achievements here is to make us think anew of the much-maligned white van man, less as a self-appointed king of the road than a prisoner of his own Ford Transit, forced by circumstances to keep moving in a bid to stay alive. Ricky's progress may be charted in strikingly basic shot syntax - no sweeping drone- or crane-enhanced overviews, no prettifying panoramas of the kind Loach seemed partial to as recently as 2014's Jimmy's Hall - but even this looks like a comment on how our horizons have been reduced under an austerity government. If Loach himself appears a little stuck in this mode, assiduously working the same narrow dramatic furrow, it could well be out of solidarity with all but an elite few getting by in Britain in 2019: he can't loosen up, can't give an inch, because he knows full well what's at stake, now - weeks away from the most decisive General Election in a lifetime - more than ever.

Sorry We Missed You is now playing in selected cinemas.

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