Sunday, February 2, 2014

The People's Director: Ken Loach

     Upon hearing Ken Loach's upcoming film could be his last I thought this would be a good time to share some thoughts about his work and hopefully turn people on to bits of his massive catalog. I don't think he's ever made a bad movie. If you're looking for mindless entertainment or sentimentality look elsewhere, Loach's work is extraordinarily realistic and you wont find many happy endings in his movies. But there is a deeply human thread running through his body of work that's always interwoven with a concise anti-establishment statement told in an alarmingly natural and relatable way. Loach has made almost 30 feature films, more if you include teleplays for the BBC in the early years, so the breath of his repertoire may be intimidating and many of his movies are near impossible to find or see (though there are quite a few for rent on his youtube channel).  

Cathy Come Home, 1966

     A good place to start is a trio of masterful films he made in the early 90's: Riff-Raff, Raining Stones and Ladybird Ladybird. Each one focuses on the affect a different social institution or program has had on working class UK, and each are incredibly powerful stories. Raining Stones deals with poverty most directly; in the opening we find the main characters killing sheep for their mutton to sell in their local pub. The protagonist is a Catholic, devout to the point of idiocy, yet the film takes a very balanced thoughtful approach to the way religion controls the lives of believers. Riff-Raff deals with safety regulations on a construction site while Ladybird Ladybird is one of his crowing achievements. Grounded by an earth-shatteringly emotional performance from Crissy Rock as a mother battling child protective services for the right to be with her kids, it's a heavy, disturbing look at a twisted bureaucracy out of control. 

Ladybird Ladybird, 1994

One of the things you'll hear from certain Loach fans is they find his style of docudrama so moving, not just because of the quality of the filmmaking and performances, but that it was the first time they ever saw "normal" people like themselves on screen; relatable characters that spoke the way they spoke, dressed like they dressed and dealt with the same daily problems they did. The local dialects and accents in his films are thoroughly authentic to say the least. For an outsider it can be, at times, difficult to decipher. Indeed, some movies have been broadcast in the US with subtitles, though, personally, I can usually pick up on the cadences and slang pretty quickly. The most egregious offender of this is probably 1998s My Name Is Joe. It's a solid film thats deals with AA, poverty and love but the Glasgow accents are very strong for those not used to them. 

Raining Stones,  1993

      Loach is perhaps best known for the 1969 film Kes, a simple story about a boy and his relationship with his pet falcon that helps him escape from his abuse stricken home life. One of his best movies is undoubtably Sweet Sixteen, another Glasgow set story penned by longtime collaborator the brilliant Paul Laverty. Ken has only written a few of his films but he is there from the inception of the idea and collaborates throughout the process yet leaves a lot of the actual writing to others, among them longtime creative partners Laverty and Jim Allen.

Sweet Sixteen, 2002

    They have done a few amazing period pieces, most notable is the riveting and unsettling Palm D'Or winning masterpiece The Wind That Shakes the Barley from 2006. Cillian Murphy stars as a young Republican dealing with the English invasion of Northern Ireland in the early 1900s. It may be the best film about that conflict ever made, and that's saying a lot. Land and Freedom from 1995 takes us inside a POUM revolutionary group during the Spanish Civil War. The film that followed it, Carla's Song, is set in 1987 Nicaragua among the Sandinistas. 

     Loach’s repertoire is punctuated by a series of intelligent political documentaries. His most recent, Spirit of 45, about the history of the labour party in the UK.  His most recent features are slightly lighter fare: the excellent and underrated ode to the joys of whiskey The Angels' Share and the dramatic soccer comedy Looking for Eric. Rouge Irish from 2010 dealt with war mercenaries and the particularly excellent It's A Free World... is one of numerous films of his about immigration. All of these are movies worth seeking out.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley, 2006

     I should mention one hallmark of Ken's work is his humor. There are laugh out loud moments, solid everyday laughs, in even the most dreary of his films. Another consistent throughout his career is his knack for casting and the quality of the actors he finds. He often discovers and casts non-professionals that embody the role needed perfectly, almost every lead in every movie is remarkable. 

     I don't think there has been a more important political filmmaker than Ken Loach. No one has portrayed the struggles of the working poor that he dramatizes so effectively, time and time again. The trials of oppression are humanized through his films: tragic, educational, comic and ultimately uplifting, Loach's repertoire deserves to go down as one of the finest ever. An important artist is there ever was one.