MOVIES
by Ned Depew

 

Photos courtesy Zeitgeist Films, ©2019 

 

The new film from Ken Loach, with a screenplay from his frequent collaborator, Paul Laverty, is a respectful and honest tribute to the unquenchable determination of human beings to build a better world. At the same time, it is an unflinching and devastating critique of how modern capitalist society seeks to distort and harness that noble effort in its own shallow and materialistic interests. Like the best social commentary films, it doesn't seek to polemicize, but rather exposes the dynamic through personalizing it in the stories of those directly affected.


Coming out of the Great Depression and World War II through the 1960s, England, like the United States, was a much more egalitarian society, gradually extending a safety net of care to more and more of its less advantaged population. But the conservative revolution of the 1970s, led by Ronald Reagan and his reactionary Republican supporters in the U.S., and by Margaret Thatcher and her core of Tory oligarchs in Britain, set out to deliberately dismantle those social programs and restore as much of the financial insecurity and wealth inequality of the pre-war years as they were able.


The results in Britain, as in the U.S., have been profoundly destructive. Here in the U.S. we have the highest rate of childhood poverty, the highest rates of incarceration and the highest levels of income inequality we have seen in our history—the highest of any major industrialized nation. Britain’s social services structures have survived better than ours, but have been deeply damaged and strongly discredited by years of conservative leadership and propaganda. The result is a society that, like that in the U.S., is far down the scale of societal happiness as measured by international social science indices.


Loach has long been a champion of ordinary people. Like the Founding Fathers of the U.S., he has faith in the innate goodness of the vast majority of people and in their altruism and common sense. For many years his goal has been to examine, in a sympathetic and thorough  way, the condition of such people and reflect it back to us in hopes that by examining it we may understand how the systems that shape our lives have been turned against us, and have generated such misery and despair for so many. It’s an attempt to educate and explain through storytelling, and few are as good at it as Loach.


The title of the film is drawn from the card that delivery drivers for a fictional (but modeled on real) package delivery distribution firm leave when those designated to receive their parcels aren’t available. Ricky (Kris Hitchen) is a construction worker who has been unable to find work in that field for some time. He has too much pride to go on the dole, and has taken a string of low-level laboring jobs that, together with his wife Abbie’s (Debbie Honeywood) earnings as a contracted caregiver for elderly shut-ins, keeps his family’s head barely above water, living paycheck to paycheck. They are both employed, but by a system that provides no further support, no benefits, and keeps them desperately dependent to keep what little they have.


Dissatisfied with this kind of modern peonage and unwilling to raise his children to follow in their parents’ footsteps, Ricky seeks to be his own boss, and is recruited by the distribution company. Under the pressure of the dismal employment situation, and inveigled with promises of a bright future and large earning potential, Ricky signs on as an independent contractor delivery person. Under the terms of his contract, he is responsible for all his expenses, from renting or buying a van through rental and replacement of company equipment he is supplied, including the expensive computer that guides his routes and schedule and tracks his inventory and movements throughout the day.

Far from his dream of independence, Ricky quickly finds himself in thrall to the company in a situation reminiscent of the reprehensible labor practices of the 19th and early 20th century, when companies designed contracts and strategies to put workers so deeply in debt that they were working virtually for free, and had no options to leave the company towns to which they had been lured. He is constantly spurred to do more and do it faster, under threat of losing his job. There are substantial fines imposed for arbitrary infractions. He is told he may not bring own his daughter, Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), on his route, in spite of the fact that the van and insurance are his own.

Meanwhile, Abbie, who has sacrificed her own car to buy the van, travels by public transportation to her several clients in far-flung parts of the city, for which time and expense she is not paid. Nonetheless, she extends tender, supportive care to some of the most vulnerable elderly citizens, for what amounts to minimum wage. She embodies the kindness and generosity of someone caring for others, without regard to their own reward.

On Ricky’s job, there is no margin for error or the unexpected. The need to take time to deal with problems his angry and unhappy son, Sebastian (Rhys Stone), is having in and out of school leads to fines, threats and abuse from the supervisor at the warehouse. When Ricky is robbed and brutally beaten by a gang of young thugs, he is dunned by the company for the cost of the computer they destroy in an act of senseless vandalism and threatened with job loss for being absent, even though he is heavily bandaged and injured, in no condition to work.

In Britain, Loach shows, which once prided itself on the solidarity and unionism that broke the yoke of worker oppression across the 20th century, this new contractor strategy has succeeded in reducing workers to the kind of unprotected, isolated, destructively competitive and benefit-less individuals the unbridled capitalist greed of the Industrial Revolution exploited for a century or more.

Screenwriter Laverty has a way with the colloquial speech and dialogue of his subjects. As in other films where he’s worked with Loach, the difficulty in understanding and articulating their feelings and the positions in which they find themselves is beautifully expressed as much by what they don’t say, and can’t say, as by the words they speak. Laverty’s ability to personalize the greater social problems in the particular and sympathetic characters he creates is what makes the story available to the actors to put across.


Director Loach does his usual fine work. Using a cast of mostly unknowns, including several first-timers in key roles, he manages to parlay their lack of polished acting into a near-documentary feel that is an important part of what makes his films so compelling. We don’t feel we are watching actors play out a story, but rather characters living their lives. His work builds on the tradition of the Italian neorealists of the post-war period and all the social commentary films that tradition spawned. Loach is one of the contemporary masters.


His actors do their part admirably, a tribute to their skills as well as Loach’s. This is Hitchen’s first feature film, although he has done shorts and some TV, but his embodiment of Ricky is drawn from life and completely believable. It is Honeywood’s first feature as well, yet she manages to make Abbie’s empathetic, resigned but feisty character clear. The raggedness of the performances, artfully integrated and edited by Loach, give a rawness to the film that enhances the sense of authenticity.


The two young actors who play the couple’s children, Rhys Stone and Katie Proctor, are also neophytes. In spite of that, the chemistry they develop within the family—both supportive and adversarial—rings true. Loach has managed to help them to play the characters with full conviction and identification. Ross Brewster, another actor with no prior credits, plays Maloney, the warehouse supervisor, with a ruthless self-importance that anyone who has ever worked in such a setting will recognize, yet Brewster manages to add a personal signature that makes Maloney more than just an allegorical figure.


The cinematography, by frequent Loach collaborator Robbie Ryan, is very much in the cinema verité style that independent filmmakers often adopt. Its use of documentary filming techniques mixed with sophisticated modern film/video technology moves away from the stilted visual vocabulary of studio films into a film language that is more spontaneous and direct. For a story like this it’s a great approach.


The sets and settings are mostly actual locations rather than studio reproductions. This,  despite the limitations of filming in constricted spaces, also adds to the realism. The music is limited, with no composed score in the traditional sense, but mostly an eclectic sampling of contemporary pop. In this kind of film programmatic music is mostly an inappropriate distraction.


Loach and his team have made a fine, hard-hitting film, that focuses on an emerging economic trend and exposes its dark side forcefully but honestly, through a very personal story that emphasizes the human costs of this particular construct. Loach has made a career of telling powerful stories of the lives of ordinary people that illuminate some of the most important problems his society—and by extension ours—faces.


In the tradition of Zola and Dickens (not to mention De Sica), Loach seeks to provoke social analysis and change by frank exposure of the human toll otherwise abstract policies exact from real people. That he does so through interesting, emotionally honest, thoughtful storytelling makes the message that much more engaging and impactful.