One of the most prolific and long lasting forces in British cinema has been Ken Loach and yet there’s something about his work that seems oddly… avoidable. The dude manages to show up at the Cannes Film Festival with every single one of his films and manages to get reviews that are respectful yet also kind of board, as if he’s been coasting largely on reputation for a while, but it doesn’t really seem like a case of diminishing returns either because his older films also kind of seem to blend together in the popular consciousness. If I were to compare his reputation to a musician it would probably be to someone like Nick Cave or Spoon who consistently put out strong work and have their fans while never really having that classic album or hit single that stands out and makes people gravitate towards it. Personally, the only Ken Loach films I’d seen were 1970’s Kes, which is probably his one film that stands out as his most famous, and 2007’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley for which he won his first Palme d’Or. The former movie didn’t really live up to its reputation for me, but I quite liked The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Given that Loach has just won his second Palme for the upcoming I, Daniel Blake and that there’s a new documentary about his work coming out I think the time is right to finally brush up on the guy’s work. It should be noted that because his movies tent to not really come in peaks and valleys it’s kind of hard to pick out which of his films are the most essential viewing and I’m also kind of hampered by the selection of films that’s available through Netflix and similar sources but I’ve tried to come up with films that are representative of various eras in his career.
Cathy Come Home (1966)
Ken Loach began his career in television where he worked on a celebrated TV series in the 60s called “The Wednesday Play,” which was a sort of anthology series of self-contained teleplays which usually focused on various social issues. His true breakthrough was with an episode of the series, essentially a short TV-movie, called Cathy Come Home which was a huge phenomenon when it broadcast in 1966. This broadcast was so widely seen that it was estimated that a quarter of the UK population watched it and it would eventually led to debate on the floor of Parliament. Now normally in these kinds of articles and writings I disqualify TV-films on principal but this one seems to really be punching above its weight class. The film is about 75 minutes long, which is on the lower end of what could be called a feature film and is a lot more ambitious and better produced than “60s English teleplay” would leave you to believe. Ignore the “Wednesday Play” moniker of the series because this is clearly shot on location and doesn’t feel stagey at all and even uses some fairly innovative documentary style handheld photography and gritty 16mm photography. The topic of the film was homelessness, but not really the kind of homelessness you usually think of. No one in this movie is living under a bridge or anything like that and there’s no drug addiction or mental illness involved. Rather this is about how a middle class family find themselves in a bad financial situation after the man of the house is injured in a work accident and they fall behind on the rent and end up evicted. From there the family, specifically the mother Cathy, finds themselves drifting from one temporary housing situation to the next. This was all exasperated by a general housing crisis that was occurring at the time in Britain and the film focused in on the variety of ways that the system and the public failed this couple.
Ken Loach was of course a committed socialist who mostly made social realist movies with openly activist intentions. With this one he is very clearly trying to both point out flaws in the system while also creating characters that the average audience member can both relate to and sympathize with. On both of these fronts the film is definitely a success. It’s style is also really above and beyond what you’d expect given the film’s origins. Clearly this has its origins in the British “Kitchen Sink/Angry Young Men” movement but the addition of the handheld semi-documentary style made it distinct from something like Look Back in Anger or The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. The one place where the film’s TV origins probably did hurt it was in the limited running time. In many ways the film feels a bit rushed with the characters making pretty big life adjustments over the course of some rather short scenes. At times the film goes so far as to add voiceover to the scene transitions just to save that extra little bit of time. An extra half hour of film time really would have given the movie time to breath but there probably are advantages to its brevity and fast pace as well. The only other thing I might object to, and I’ve heard this can generally be a problem with Loach’s cinema, is that he kind of makes certain bureaucrats into the face of everything wrong with the system as if they’re the ones making the rules and underfunding these programs. Granted this is probably true to how his characters are seeing things but if you’re going to shoot, aim for the politicians in charge not the middle management people just trying to do their job. Aside from that though this is a pretty big win and I can totally see why this would have felt downright revolutionary if it were broadcast on television in the 60s.
Looks and Smiles (1981)
Given his age and his prolific output I always assumed that Ken Loach would have put out a ton of movies during the 70s and 80s, especially given the economic troubles for the UK during the former decade and the Thatcherism that was taking over in the later decade, but that isn’t the case at all. I don’t know all the details but apparently he had a lot of trouble getting funding during this era in spite of the success of Kes and ended up focusing a lot of his attention to TV documentaries. As such the guy was only able to make four feature length scripted movies between 1970 and 1989 and few of them are seen as among his best. Looks and Smiles is one of those movies and had it not been one of the only options from this era that was available I probably wouldn’t have picked it for this retrospective but them’s the breaks. This a small film that was shot in black and white, probably for financial rather than artistic reasons, and basically just follows a young man from a working class family as he deals with trying to find a job in a bad economy while also dealing with the usual problems that 20-somethings have to deal with. The film isn’t trying to trace out the roots of all this guy’s problems the way that Cathy Come Home did and it isn’t pleading for change in the same way either. This is trying for a bit of a softer sell. It wants to simply give the “posh” audience more of an idea what the working class lives like and create a little bit of empathy along the way. There’s a reason why this movie isn’t particularly remembered today or widely cited within Loach’s career, there’s nothing wildly wrong about it but nothing about it that really stands out and makes it memorable.
Hidden Agenda (1990)
Hidden Agenda was essentially Ken Loach’s comeback film and while it wasn’t exactly a blockbuster it did seem to successfully relaunch his career and start him on the track of making a new film seemingly every other year at least. Interestingly this is not necessarily a particularly representative example of Loach’s filmmaking as it is in some ways the closest that he’s ever gotten to selling out. Obviously Loach was never going to sacrifice his principals and this movie is indeed just as fearlessly political as anything else he’s done but in some ways this was Loach’s one attempt (that I know of) to make his work a bit more appealing to Hollywood. Whereas many Loach films either feature non-actors or extremely obscure ones, this one is populated by known names like Brian Cox, Frances McDormand, and Brad Dourif. More notable however is that the film incorporates thriller elements into its narrative. Now to be clear, it isn’t like this is a movie with car chases or explosions and largely consists of conversations, but compared to the working class slice of life narratives we’re used to seeing from him it practically feels like a Bourne movie.
The film follows a British investigator who has been tasked with investigating the murder of an American human rights lawyer who was murdered while investigating human rights violations by British officials during “the troubles.” The investigator soon determines that both were killed by British cops but must also uncover how far up the ladder this goes and what the conspiracy entails. With The Wind That Shakes the Barley Ken Loach would eventually examine the historical roots of the IRA and did it by focusing on the people it affected. I suspect that’s the way he would have preferred to examine the struggle here but instead he takes more of a top down approach by making a sort of thriller about outsiders investigating the conflict. As a movie that does that, this is pretty good just the same. The movie seems to be modeled after other “righteously searching for the truth” movies like Z and Missing and Brian Cox is certainly effective as a determined investigator and some of the scenes where he’s arguing with people involved with the conspiracy. However, the case at the film’s center is not wildy interesting and the conspiracy it uncovers seems to level some oddly specific accusations at the Thatcher government for a film that doesn’t claim to be “based on a true story.” Also the ending is awkwardly abrupt. Loach is clearly out of his comfort zone here but he does a pretty admirable job of delivering a decent move all the same and if this is what he had to do to get back in the good graces of the financers there are certainly less dignified ways he could have done it.
Raining Stones (1993)
Ken Loach’s follow-up to Hidden Agenda is a very well regarded 1991 film called Riff Raff (not available through Netflix) and his next film was this lower key work called Raining Stones which I wanted to see in order to get a more representative example of his work in the 90s. Like Looks and Smiles this is more of a slice of life “soft sell” that’s trying to create empathy for the working class rather than throw bombs at the causes of oppression but there’s more of a story arc this time around. This one is about a catholic man who feels a great deal of pressure to buy an expensive First Communion dress for his daughter. Unable to find the funds through conventional means he makes a series of unfortunate decisions which end up with him in debt to a brutal loan shark who ends up being a much bigger strain on the family than their initial predicament. A bit like Cathy Come Home this is a movie about how quickly things can go wrong for families that aren’t terribly well off and how much of a burden a single “splurge” can be for them. It took a while for me to warm up to this one in part because the characters don’t immediately strike fascination and also the productions values have clearly gone down a bit (which is exasperated by a rather poor DVD presentation) but once the loan shark enters into the picture and the stakes become more tangible the movie does begin to pick up. It’s not exactly a standalone classic but it does seem to be a logical entry into Loach’s larger body of work.
Sweet Sixteen (2002)
One thing I’ve noticed while looking at this sample of Ken Loach’s filmography is that he doesn’t confine himself to any one section of the British Isles. Just in this one sample we’ve seen London, Sheffield, North Ireland, Greater Manchester, and this film brings us to Scotland. Our subject is a troubled 15 year old boy who, were he living in the United States, would likely be labeled as “white trash.” His mother is in jail, her boyfriend appears to be a petty criminal, he doesn’t seem to be in school, and he and his friends have taken to selling untaxed cigarettes in order to make money. The film depicts this young man going deeper into crime as he attempts to save up money to buy a home the he and his mother can move into when she’s released from prison. It probably doesn’t take a lot of close analysis to realize that Ken Loach and Brian De Palma are not very similar in style and sensibility but comparing the rise of this kid with the rise of Scarface would still be amusing. Any romance one could potentially see in using crime as a means of rising above one’s means is gone here in place of a more realistic and kind of pathetic portrait of what it’s like to be forced into crime. Loach’s style is once again minimalistic and it’s interesting how little his visual eye seems to change over the years. This was made almost a decade after Raining Stone and yet you wouldn’t really know that if not for a few soundtrack choices, which (taken with the rest of Loach’s filmography) maybe says something about how slowly things change.
Jimmy’s Hall (2014)
Ken Loach’s 2014 effort Jimmy’s Hall was rumored to be his final film when it came out (a rumor that proved to be rather false) and given that it was often interpreted to be the work of someone who wanted to go out on a slightly more optimistic note than what we frequently see from him. The film is set in Ireland in 1932 and could be seen a s spiritual sequel of sorts to his Palme d’Or winning 2007 film The Wind That Shakes the Barley in that it deals with the aftermath of the civil war that was seen in that previous film. The film focuses in on this small Irish town where a local hero of sorts named Jimmy Gralton has returned after spending some time in New York and is welcomed back by much of the community. Soon he begins erecting a building that becomes a dancehall and gathering place for the locals, much to the disgust of the local priest who views Gralton as a socialist and a troublemaker and sees this dancehall as a threat to his authority. As this is a period piece you’ll notice a clear improvement in production values over some of the other Ken Loach movies and this also has less of a “slice of life” feel. The story is largely about just how hard it is for leftist speakers to even get the slightest foothold and how hard it is to go up against the powers that be even when you’re not even trying to threaten them. The film is based on a true story and doesn’t necessarily look at its central figure with a whole lot of nuance. Throughout the film Jimmy is seen as a total mensch and his dancehall as a grandly beneficial project for the people of this town and the priest is a total uptight asshole (very different from the priest in Raining Stone) and that simplicity does kind of keep the movie from greatness, but there is a definite charm to the proceedings just the same. If this had indeed been Loach’s final movie it wouldn’t have necessarily been an unworthy one, but it also certainly wouldn’t have been his best.
So, I’ve now seen 400% more Ken Loach movies than I had when I started this little project and yet I still don’t feel like I’ve gone all that deep into the guy’s body of work; this one truly felt like an introductory survey. Still, I think I do have a slightly better grasp of his career trajectory and his usual style. It is weird that the best of the movies I watched here is probably the TV film that first made him famous and it is notable that, while I gave none of the movies failing grades, none of them really excelled either. But the actual grades might be a bit misleading. As I suspected when I first went into this, Ken Loach is indeed someone who is perhaps more notable as a filmmaker when you look at the complete body of work than he necessarily is when looking at individual films. This isn’t ideal but it isn’t a deal breaker either. I definitely look forward to seeing I, Daniel Blake, which sounds like it might be one of his best yet if the Cannes awards are any indication and I might just do a second crash course in his work someday, especially if some of his other notable films become more readily available.