Director: Ken Loach
Screenplay: Paul Laverty
Starring: Robert Carlyle, Oyanka Cabezas, Scott Glenn, Gary Lewis
Duration: 106 min
BBFC Certification: 15
Beyond the obvious partnerships of directors and actors, there are other key collaborations in cinema that tend to go unnoticed outside the attention of dedicated cinephiles. While Scorsese, for example, certainly found a muse in Robert De Niro, his partnership with editor Thelma Schoonmaker has been equally integral in helping him to fulfil his creative vision. The same can be said for Spielberg’s relationship with composer John Williams or Joseph Losey’s brief but brilliant collaborations with the playwright Harold Pinter.
The socially conscious and frequently provocative British filmmaker Ken Loach has a similarly symbiotic relationship with the screenwriter Paul Laverty. While launching his early career with a string of critically acclaimed ‘kitchen sink’ dramas in the 1960s (including the television play Cathy Come Home and his 1968 masterpiece, Kes) Loach’s career didn’t reach the same heights of critical adulation again until the 1990s. This late career renaissance can be partly attributed to his collaboration with Laverty; as well as making a string of classic British films together, including My Name is Joe, Sweet Sixteen and Ae Fond Kiss, their collaboration has resulted, with The Wind that Shakes the Barley and I, Daniel Blake, with Loach being one of the few directors to win the Palme d’Or twice. It is little wonder that they have never stopped working together since Carla’s Song, their first collaboration from 1996.
This little seen and unappreciated film is one of the key releases this April from Indicator. While it is fantastic to see the first film from one of the great partnerships in modern British Cinema brought back to public consciousness, does Carla’s Song confidently mark the beginning of a great creative union or is there a reason the film frequently languishes, forgotten and unloved, towards the bottom of Loach’s filmography?
It is fair to say that Carla’s Song is very much a film of two halves. The first takes place in 1987 in Glasgow, where bus driver George (Robert Carlyle) encounters the enigmatic Carla (Oyanka Cabezas), a refugee from Nicaragua. Determined to find out more about her, George slowly gets drawn into a relationship, where he sees first hand how her traumatic past has left her both physically and emotionally scarred. He insists on taking her back to Nicaragua so that she can finally confront her past and find the answers relating to her old boyfriend’s disappearance that she has been seeking for so long.
Despite being set in a milieu that would go on to embody much of Loach’s and Laverty’s later work, it is the first half of Carla’s Song that finds the film at its weakest. George seems to fall head over heels in love with Clara for no apparent reason other than the script demands it and at points (such as when he forces his way into her bedroom at a hostel) seems more like an obsessed stalker than a romantic lead. Credibility is further stretched to breaking point when George, after kicking off his passengers, essentially steals a bus and takes Carla on an impromptu romantic road trip to Loch Lomond.
These scenes might work better if they were in a romantic comedy, but in what is meant to be a realistic drama, they feel underwritten and out of place. George’s infatuation with Carla fails to convince, making his decision to take her to Nicaragua (to find her old boyfriend, remember) feel even more like Laverty is finding functional reasons to get to the next stage of his story, without underpinning those reasons with an emotional or logical credibility. Yet when the film arrives in Nicaragua, things slowly but surely start to gel. As George and Carla’s relationship develops and as you find out more about her country and her past, their connection becomes far more believable, with Laverty more than making up for the sins of the first half by steering his story towards a quiet but powerfully emotional climax.
This being a Ken Loach film, there is of course more going on here than a simple romanic drama. In 1987, Nicaragua was in the middle of a brutal civil war that was instigated by the American Government and it is against this backdrop that the latter half of Carla’s Song is set. While being a filmmaker famous for using his films as a means to voice his political beliefs, Loach does not use Carla’s Song as a soapbox to solely rage about the injustices of the Nicaraguan civil war. In fact, if you are unfamiliar with the historical background, for the majority of the running time Loach does little to fill you in on who is fighting who and why; this adroitly mirror’s George’s own experience and makes the revelations, when they come, far more emotionally shocking than they might have been in the hands of a lesser filmmaker.
That is one of the key things about Ken Loach. Whether you agree with his politics or not, there is no denying that he usually wraps up his polemic in stories that have a deeply human, universal appeal that never, no matter what his detractors may say, allow intellectual admonishment to outweigh emotional honesty. In this regard, Carla’s Song is no different. It is a story more concerned with the importance of confronting your past and dealing with trauma and pain than it is about the political motivations and reasons of the civil war, despite the clear passion Loach has for laying bare the truth about the conflict.
For long time fans of Loach, there is lots to like in Carla’s Song if you are coming to the film for the first time. The performances are brilliant across the board (but that should come as no surprise). Robert Carlyle proves again that he is just as convincing playing mild mannered Everymen as he is at playing emotionally damaged psychopaths, while Oyanka Cabezas is never less than utterly convincing, despite having to learn English for the film. Scott Glenn gives a passionately heartfelt performance while the hugely under-appreciated character actor Gary Lewis (you might be familiar with him from Orphans, another Indicator release) provides his usual faultless work.
Loach’s usual documentary verisimilitude provides captivating results, with Nicaragua (like the Spanish set Land and Freedom, filmed the year previous to Carla’s Song) proving to be a startling and refreshing change to the dull, grey cities that so many of his stories are set in. He is helped in this regard by the great cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, not only one of Loach’s usual DoPs but one of the go-to professionals if you want your film to have a punch of documentary reality. His work in Carla’s Song is typically powerful, retaining a sense of realism even during the explosions and gun fights that occasionally take place.
Carla’s Song seems to prove, then, that even when Ken Loach isn’t firing on all cylinders, he is almost incapable of making a bad film. While Carla’s Song does not rank among his or Laverty’s best work and despite a ropey first half, the film ultimately resolves into a powerfully cathartic tale that deserves to be more widely seen. Underrated and fully warranting a fresh appreciation among Loach’s latter day works, it is fabulous that it is finally being brought back into the spotlight.
Carla’s Song is being released on a Limited Edition Blu Ray by Indicator on the 26th April. Being a Ken Loach film, this isn’t going to be anyone’s demo disc for their system but the picture quality (sourced from an HD remaster) is wonderful and film-like throughout with beautiful, pin sharp detail. The encode is typically faultless, handling the few night time scenes with aplomb. The stereo soundtrack is equally crystal clear (although some of Cabezas dialogue is a little hard to understand at times). Although the film is dialogue heavy, the few explosions and gunfire on the stereo track pack some punch.
As usual, Indicator provide a great array of extra content, which is as follows:
- Audio commentary with director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty (2005)
- An Extraordinary Thing (2021, 18 mins): producer Sally Hibbin recalls the challenges of filming in Nicaragua
- Two Worlds Collide (2021, 9 mins): editor Jonathan Morris discusses working on an ambitious, international scale
- Tuning in to Nicaragua (2021, 10 mins): composer George Fenton details his approach to scoring the film
- Background to the Art (2021, 14 mins): art director Fergus Clegg on recreating the late-eighties setting of Carla’s Song
- Sounds of Music (2021, 10 mins): sound recordist Ray Beckett discusses the technical aspects of Loach’s documentary style of filmmaking
- Keeping Up Appearances (2021, 10 mins): script supervisor Susanna Lenton relates the complexities of shooting the film in sequence
- Ten deleted scenes (12 mins)
- Original theatrical trailer
- Image gallery: publicity and promotional material
- Limited edition exclusive 36-page booklet with a new essay by Michael Pattison, Paul Laverty on Carla’s Song, an account of screening the film in Nicaragua, Ken Loach on recutting the film, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits
Audio Commentary: Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty share commentary duties for the film (I believe the commentary was included on older DVD releases). This is a loose and informal track, where Loach and Laverty take an equal share in discussing the film and providing their thoughts and behind the scenes info. Loach is refreshingly honest about what he feels does and doesn’t work, including his dislike for coming up with the film’s title! There are a few silences during the Glasgow portion of the film but both become far more talkative once the film arrives in Nicaragua. Both Loach and Laverty provide a decent amount of background and historical detail on the civil war as well.
Interviews: The bulk of the rest of the extras comprise of several interviews with some of Loach’s long term collaborators. Producer Sally Hibbin probably provides the most interesting interview (like Ken Loach in the commentary, she is very candid and down to earth, which makes her a treat to watch). It is nice to see interviews with some key crew members whose roles don’t usually get much exposure, such as the Editor and Script Supervisor. All the interviewees offer interesting anecdotes and memories about working on the film but for Loach devotees, it is fascinating to hear some of his closest collaborators talk about his filming methods and techniques.
Deleted scenes: Carla’s Song is unusual in that for the DVD release in 2005, Ken Loach actually removed some scenes that were in the original theatrical cut. Those deleted scenes are included here and are interesting for the most part, including scenes that flesh out George’s life and family in Glasgow and moments that provide further information on the war in Nicaragua.
The disc is rounded out with a trailer which tries to sell the film as a Hollywood action flick and a photo gallery with, as well as the standard production photos, has grabs of the original press pack.
Indicator once again provide this limited edition release with one of their exemplary booklets, which contains an informative essay on the film from critic Michael Pattison, a piece from Paul Laverty about his experiences in Nicaragua, an interview and short essay by Loach himself as well as contemporary reviews.