Ken Loach is a name which tends to provoke very strong reactions in fans of cinema. Known for his socially-conscious films, Loach’s is a name that has become synonymous with grim realism when, in fact, there is a greater tonal diversity to his filmography. This frequently unacknowledged diversity is well illustrated by the works included in the BFI’s new box-set Three Films by Ken Loach, of which only one really fits into the relentlessly depressing mould of the lazy Loach-associations that result in so many potential admirers backing away from his oeuvre. While all three films focus on elements of working class struggle, their stylistic similarities are superficial and Loach views his different subjects through varying lenses, never lumping them into one big, broadly-defined box marked ‘The Poor’, an approach with which he is sometimes erroneously charged. Watching these three films back to back is not recommended but they were never meant to be viewed that way. Watching them across three days as I have done allowed for the necessary digestion period which ultimately makes the differences of the characters and situations portrayed seem glaringly obvious for lack of fatigue.
Director: Ken Loach
Screenplay: Bill Jesse
Producers: Sally Hibbin
Starring: Robert Carlyle, Emer McCourt, Ricky Tomlinson
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 95 mins
For those who fear the Loach catalogue, Riff Raff makes for a superb starting point and marked an emphatic resurgence of the director’s cinematic work after a decade spent working mostly in TV documentaries. An episodic tale of a group of construction workers converting an old hospital into luxury flats, Riff Raff has a superb script by Bill Jesse, a first-time writer and former construction worker who tragically died before he got to see the finished product. Using Robert Carlyle’s newly arrived Stevie as an anchor, Jesse’s script and Loach’s breezy, free-wheeling direction branches off to focus on whichever character it takes an interest in at any particular moment. With a sense of realism at its heart, Riff Raff also dabbles in many humorous asides including moments of broad farce and an ongoing improvisatory tone which perfectly captures the sense of camaraderie that is so central to its appeal. It’s no coincidence that the song With a Little Help From My Friends is featured in one especially memorable scene.
With its depiction of an uncaring employer willing to risk the safety of his workers in order to save a few bob, Riff Raff could leave itself open to accusations of political cliché but in its portrayal of the workers as a mixed bag of an ethically-variable nature it sidesteps the working-class-hero simplicity of blunter left-wing diatribes. This greater complexity of characterisation is best illustrated in a scene in which Larry, the outspoken, good-natured father figure of the group whose impassioned political outbursts are ignored or derided by his workmates, is reminded of a joke he’s heard. Up to this point Larry, superbly played by Ricky Tomlinson in the film’s most memorable turn, has seemed to be a progressively-minded champion of the disenfranchised but the joke he tells is racially insensitive and tinged with implicit homophobia. It’s a moment that acknowledges the complexity of a human being through the conflicting influences that have gone into making Larry the man he is. He’d be the first to stand up for a victimised minority but he doesn’t see anything wrong with trotting out his comedy-Arab routine either.
Although male relationships are at the centre of Riff Raff, Jesse also introduces a female character in Emer McCourt’s Susan, a hippyish aspiring singer whose relationship with Stevie gives the film a throughline. Susan’s character is sensitively written and beautifully played by McCourt and the romance, for all its ups and downs, provides a nice counterpoint to the scenes on the construction site. Ultimately, Riff Raff is at its best when it is showing us the unremarkable but entertaining day-to-day lives of its characters, not shying away from their financial struggle but also refusing to depict it through a familiar series of downbeat moments and periods of intermittent private crying that we’ve seen so many times before. Loach does not buy into the conventional wisdom that it is somehow irresponsible to portray the working class as capable of moments of happiness. Sadly, Riff Raff doesn’t quite fend off the predictable for its whole runtime and in its last half-hour Jesse’s script sees fit to begin inserting climaxes to numerous storylines, shifting the tone from a leisurely realism to a sudden avalanche of melodramatic flourishes. Though it doesn’t ruin the film by any means, it does unbalance it severely with a tonal shift that has the effect of making the viewer suddenly very aware that they are watching a film when they have previously been made to feel part of the naturalistic vignettes. With a less contrived last act, Riff Raff might stand a great British film. As it is, it must make do with being merely a very good one which, in some ways, is in keeping with its modest charm.
Director: Ken Loach
Screenplay: Jim Allen
Producers: Sally Hibbin
Starring: Bruce Jones, Julie Brown, Ricky Tomlinson
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 90 mins
If Riff Raff overplayed its hand by switching from slice-of-life to melodrama in its final act, Raining Stones manages to have it both ways by establishing one dramatic storyline early on and using that to build up a series of related episodes that also feel part of the whole. Opening with scenes in which Bruce Jones’s Bob and his friend Tommy (Ricky Tomlinson in another effective supporting role) attempt to make some money by stealing sheep, the film establishes its tragi-comic tone immediately. As an animal lover, I didn’t find much to laugh at in the pair’s blundering antics with a clearly distressed sheep but these scenes do instantly underline the depths to which these two desperate men have been driven while temporarily undercutting that point with broad slapstick. While it never returns to quite such silly humour, Raining Stones does continue to leaven its examination of wounded pride and desperation with an ever-present vein of black humour which is crucial in stopping it from becoming unwatchably unpleasant.
Perhaps the most interesting element of Jim Allen’s well-judged script is the multi-faceted examination of religion. While one character (whom one suspects is a sidelined mouthpiece for the viewpoint of Loach and Allen themselves) does get a pivotal speech about the detrimental effect the continued prominence of religious belief is having on society, the film also makes its most sympathetic and intelligent character the local vicar, brilliantly played with a sense of conflicted but decisive humanism by Tom Hickey. The plot of Raining Stones focuses on Bob’s determination to buy a brand new Communion dress for his daughter and this single-minded quest sees him compromising his and his family’s safety in the process. While a lesser writer-director team might have played this as a touching story of a man’s devotion to his daughter, Loach and Allen instead inspire questions about whether Bob is more motivated by his own male pride and secret shame about his lack of means which, depending on the conclusions you draw, makes Raining Stones feel like a very troubling character study indeed. To say too much more about where the story goes would be to rob the film of its power but suffice it to say Raining Stones neat resolution only remains so until your brain starts going over the themes embedded in the story. With a driving forward motion, strong performances and a satisfying sense of ambiguity, it is the best of the three films in the set.
Director: Ken Loach
Screenplay: Rona Munro
Producers: Sally Hibbin
Starring: Crissy Rock, Vladimir Vega, Ray Winstone
BBFC Certification: 18
Duration: 101 mins
For those who have never seen a Ken Loach film for fear of a miserable, disturbing evening, Ladybird Ladybird plays like the film that will realise all their nightmares. Newcomers to Loach are advised to start elsewhere (Kes is an ever-popular point of entry, with good reason) as this is by far one of the director’s most unforgivingly bleak, depressing works. Based on a true story, Ladybird Ladybird examines the life of Maggie (Crissy Rock, in a celebrated performance), a woman who has been the victim of abuse on several occasions, indirectly leading to a moment of severe misjudgement which results in her four children being taken from her by Social Services. When she finally finds a loving partner in Paraguayan immigrant Jorge (Vladimir Vega), Maggie is horrified to discover that Social Services intend to take away the children she has with her new partner too, since she has been deemed an unfit mother.
While it obviously has extremely emotive subject matter from which it refuses to shrink (Loach shows a particularly brutal beating very early in the film), Ladybird Ladybird is the sort of film that leaves me a little cold. As with the other films in the set, Loach and screenwriter Rona Munro refuse to present a simplified version of events so while Social Services are presented as a rather heartless bureaucracy, Maggie is not shown to be blameless in the removal of her children from her care. Although this results in a more balanced depiction of events, it also leaves me wondering exactly what the point of the film is. Loach’s recent I, Daniel Blake has come in for criticism over its more black and white condemnation of a cruel and deliberately complex benefits system but in that film, which I loved, the thrust of the narrative was clearly defined and the impact of the message more effective for it. Unlike the grey area that makes Raining Stones so interesting, in Ladybird Ladybird it just makes it feel frustratingly inconclusive. There is little at the end to justify the harrowing experience of watching the film and a final caption which informs us that Maggie and Jorge had a further two children and were allowed to keep them only muddies the waters further by not elaborating on why that was. Is it a note of hope or a comment on bureaucratic inconsistency. Though it may be based on true events, without the proper context this ending feels as frustrating as Riff Raff’s awkwardly attached final flourishes.
Three Films by Ken Loach is released by the BFI on Blu-ray and DVD on 18 September 2017. Special features are as follows:
– Newly remastered presentation of Ladybird Ladybird approved by the director
– Ken Loach: The Guardian Lecture at the National Film Theatre with Derek Malcolm
–Face to Face: Jeremy Isaacs talks to Ken Loach
–Carry On Ken – an in depth documentary appraising the director
-Original trailers for all three films
-Illustrated booklet with new writing by David Archibald, original reviews and full film credits