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Sorry We Missed You, Britain 2019

Posted by keith1942 on November 22, 2019

This is the new title from Ken Loach and his regular scriptwriter Paul Laverty. As with the last title, I, Daniel Blake (2016), the production offers a bleak view of another burden falling on the working class. This title also is set in Newcastle upon Tyne, but this time it is a family rather than a single individual that provides the focus.

Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen) and his wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) live in rented accommodation with their two children, Seb (Rhys Stone) and Lisa Jane (Katie Proctor). Abby works for a sub-contractor to the NHS as a carer to a number of home-bound patients: two senior citizens, a young man with learning difficulties, and a middle-aged woman with a disability. There are likely others we do not see,

Ricky has been out of work for some time though he claims that he has not signed on. He is desperate to work but also he also wants to improve the family situation: specifically by finding the money to obtain their own house. Seb is in the last year at school but alienated from both education and adult society. He hangs round with a group of friends who are on the edge of legality in their activities. Lisa is the youngest; she takes after her mother and is more stable than Seb.

The film opens with a blank screen and the sound of two voices. The image appears and Ricky is being interviewed by a manager at a Delivery firm depot. As the latter explains the terms of the work, labelled self-employment, there is already an ominous sense of where this may lead. Ricky is neither the type of character nor in a situation where he is able to be properly critical of the contract on offer.

It is the merit of Paul Laverty’s screenplay that the premonitions this engenders for an audience do not materialise in a conventional manner.. The narrative not only presents the extremely exploitative nature of the work Ricky performs but also relates this to the problems and tensions within the family. To start with Ricky has to provide a van and he pressurises Abby to sell her car to provide a deposit. This means that she has to use public transport to visit a number of clients who seem to be some way apart, lengthening her working day.

Whilst Ricky owns the van the working arrangements mean that he is tied to a long day, with electronic supervision through the gadget that he must carry at all times. This is a relentless work schedule, with time of delivery set, lots of driving, and often unhelpful or absent recipients.. One occasion when Ricky tries to outmaneuvre a parking warden so he can make a quick delivery offers an example of this brutal work timetable. On another occasion, when Lisa accompanies him for the day, they have a charming moment of rest, sitting looking out over a pleasant landscape. Then the timer on the gadget calls Ricky back to the cab and work.

So both Ricky and Abby are working long hours and therefore absent from their children. We see Lisa and Seb on a number of occasions at home alone, with Lisa making their meals and coping without parents. It is a sign of Lisa’s greater stability that she is seen rousing the unwilling Seb so he is not late for school.

The downward spiral suggested at the opening does result. However, it does so in unexpected ways and with a sense of naturalism that is always one of the strengths of Ken Loach’s film-making. And his cast of characters are convincing and more complex than is the norm in British realist cinema. Chris Hitchen conveys well the driven desperation of Ricky. Debbie Hollywood has the more empathetic role, as the mainstay of the family and as a sympathetic carer. She delivers this with warmth and commitment. Katie Proctor is good as Lisa, seemingly mature beyond her years. Rhys Stone catches the volatile and sometimes erratic behaviour of the teenage Seb. However, this character does not convince in the same way. The changes from his warmth in the family at a meal-time does not quite fit with his later volatile and erratic behaviour. When a rare family meal occurs he is a warm member of the event. But this seems a long way from his malicious prank when his phone is threatened.

There are few characters outside side the family and none of them are fully developed. Their main function is to provide the plot development that impact on the family. The manager at the depot is convincing as a manipulator who must keep the workforce on track and on time. He seems approachable but when the rules require he is completely ruthless. Ricky’s only apparent friend is a colleague at the Depot who appears to fit into the requirements easily. We do see, briefly, another driver, who violently confronts the manager when the ruthless regime is imposed. But this passes with little seeming impact.

We see Abby’s clients’ on several occasion. They provide the needs which demonstrate her caring warmth and devotion. An audience is likely to wonder about other clients whose carers are less dedicated. We do see a school friend of Lisa and we see Seb together with his group, but in neither case are characters developed.

This tight focus leads to a number of limitations in the narrative. In ‘I, Daniel Blake’ a viewer encountered different examples of the state bureaucracy. Here the exploiting class has only one representative, the Depot manager. At one point he explains to Ricky the rationale of his management. He claims that the ‘depot’ is a golden example in the chain, with high rates of accuracy in deliveries. Unsaid is the cost to the workforce of his regime. In that sense the viewer is left to draw conclusions about the profitability of Ricky’s stressful job. One reviewer remarked how this film does not have one of the Loachian tropes; a sequence where the politics of the situation are discussed. In the famous BBC production, Days of Hope (1975), the role of capital and the state were clearly describe and analysed. I doubt that a substantial part of the audience will consider that relationship during this film. One can be appalled at the exploitation but think this is an aspect of particularly exploitative company or ‘the gig economy. In a similar fashion ‘I, Daniel Blake’ could suggest an uncaring bureaucracy without pointing to the role of state agencies in disciplining labour for capital.

The tight focus on the family means that we do not see a working class community. This is similar to the presentation of I, Daniel Blake where a constructed family is centre.  It is generally accepted that the traditional working class communities have, to a degree, fragmented. But they do still exist and there are newer ethnic communities in today’s Britain. The recent Loach films have privileged northern settings where identifiable working class communities can still be seen, always a tendency in the output. The early Laverty scripts had a sense of community. But this has not been maintained in recent films. The strongest communities were is period films like Jimmy’s Hall (2014), set in Eire in the 1930s.

In one way we are back to Ken Loach’s initial features like Cathy Come Home (1966) or Kes (1969), with a couple or individual alienated from a community by circumstance. But there are other films where the community is central to the narrative. Riff-Raff (1991)has a working community.

The latter film also exemplifies another absence, the organised working class; in that film autonomous. This too has suffered decline in recent decades but it remains a force in Britain. The gig economy represented in the film suffers from an absence of organisation for the workers; but the case of Uber drivers demonstrates that this can change. And an earlier title like Looking for Eric (2009)demonstrated the use of both community and working class organisation.

One factor in these absences is Loach choice of pitching his films in the mainstream mode, even if at its peripheries. Thus the films offer a limited number of key characters. Their story is centred around their actions and the actions upon them. The narrative tends to the linear and actions are clearly motivated. Loach rarely uses flashbacks or include reflexive sequences. His films are didactic; a point that repeatedly annoys bourgeois critics. The features are melodramas of protest, usually ending not in victory but at least in the torch of resistance being passed on. But a number are more properly described as melodramas of defeat, and the ending of Sorry We Missed You, while not closure, does suggest defeat.

It is instructive to remember the input by the sadly deceased Jim Allen. His Land and Freedom (1995) is a period piece to which The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) can be favourably compared. But the earlier Hidden Agenda (1990)treats of the colonial issue, in the north of Eire, from a contemporary point of view. And Days of Hope has an overt political dimension that is more potent than in any other Loach work. It was also a period drama but it relevance was clear from the attacks in the series, including the dubious honour a Times editorial. Along with other Allen scripts, such as for ‘The Wednesday Play’ like ‘The Lump’ (1967) and ‘The Big Flame’ (1969), it now seems that the early television work was more radical than the recent feature films; ironic in that Loach gave up on television because of censorship.

Ken Loach and his colleagues do produce films that provide and accurate and authentic representation of a common working class experience in the C21st. They do so with passion, warmth and attention to detail: whilst never mentioned in the dialogue the Turner house suffers [among other problems] from damp, the patches clearly visible on the walls in the large screen. And in a contrasting touch the stairwell is decorated with the family photographs taken mainly by Abby. In a complex plotting these same photographs dramatise the family tensions which clearly arise from their economic position. Whilst the political presentation is limited in a number of ways this film, like others by the company, are the powerful representations of contemporary working class life.

The film was shot by Loach’s now regular and excellent cinematographer Robbie Ryan. In is filmed in the typical Loach manner with much use of a long lens; sometimes producing a rather flat canvas but with a good depth of field. It is also shot on 35mm/super 16 but disappointing is only circulated in a digital transfer. But the quality of the chromatography shows through as does the attention to setting, editing and sound design. This is another remarkable milestone in a career now stretching back over fifty years. And it is a title that repays seeing it in a theatrical setting.

 

 

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