By John Flynn
The redoubtable Ken Loach has followed up his Palm D’Or winning I, Daniel Blake with a devastating drama about a family struggling to make ends meet in a precarious working environment. Along with his longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty, Loach has crafted a very necessary film about working life for so many people today.
Ricky has gone from ‘shit job to shit job’ since the crash of 2008 derailed the family’s prospects. A constant plaintive refrain heard throughout the film by different family members is: ‘I just want to go back to the way things were’. Ricky takes a job as a self-employed delivery man believing (probably out of desperation) that it will finally give him the means to succeed. But, in order to put down the deposit on the van of £1000, he convinces his wife Abbie, a home carer on a zero-hours contract, to sell her car. From these desperate beginnings things soon begin to get worse. This brilliantly acted film will leave you emotionally spent as you watch this increasingly frazzled couple attempt to battle the exhaustion of long hours in high stress conditions and the fall-out of neglect at home.
There is a scene in the film that nicely weaves the personal with the political and provides a wider background to the film. Abbie is visiting Mollie, a favoured care recipient. Against the rules of the agency that she works for, (you’re not supposed to be friendly with your clients!) they are enjoying a fugitive moment of companionship sharing photographs with one another. Mollie shows her photos from the 1984 miners’ strike where she helped run the canteen. They are treasured memories of friendship and solidarity but from a tragic defeat for the labour movement. Abbie’s funny photographs are from her courtship with Ricky (at a rave), from a happy time when it seemed that they were going to buy their own home. But, the collapse of Northern Rock put an end to their hopes. It’s only in the photographs that Ricky and Abbie look happy. Now, they are exhausted and struggling to cope. A moment of marital intimacy is aborted because Abbie says she feels so sad she could cry for a week.
You always get a character in a Loach film who articulates very convincingly the point of view of the class enemy. Here, we have Moloney, ‘patron saint of nasty bastards’. He thinks that a company’s shareholders should erect a statue to him because he runs such a brutal operation for them. In the interview at the opening scene he gives Ricky some insidious language about this new economy, ‘you don’t work for us; you work with us’, but, before long, we see the brutal reality behind this rhetoric. Drivers are constantly monitored by their scanners, on severe time constraints, liable to sanctions, if they fail to meet targets. Ricky is horrified when his friend gives him a plastic bottle for emergency piss stops. But this is reality for the armies of delivery drivers frantically meeting the orders from companies like global giant Amazon. In an interview, scriptwriter Paul Laverty sardonically quipped, ‘I can’t imagine Jeff Bezos pissing in a plastic bottle because a meeting went on too long!’ When Ricky does need to use the bottle one time to relieve himself, he is savagely beaten and robbed. As he sits in the hospital waiting room with Abbie waiting to her from the X-ray results, Maloney rings him to inform him that he is liable for over £1500 because of the robbery. This, after he had incurred numerous sanctions after missing work because of domestic issues with his son, Seb. The reality of the new economy: all the costs to the worker.
Ricky and Abbie have two kids, Sebastian, the eldest and Liza Jane. Though Liza, Jane looks distraught at what is happening to her family (one terrible moment, when she bursts out crying after confessing to something is utterly heartrending), she is performing well in school. Sebastian, or Seb, is in trouble at school. He seems completely disabused of the entire system, and shoplifts spray paint for his graffiti art. The scenes with Sebastian and his friends are probably the only ones that point to self-activity or self-expression: Seb even sold his winter coat to purchase spray paint! When Sebastian gets arrested for shoplifting during a particularly fraught time for the family, Ricky collects him at the police station. Luckily, he meets a kindly copper who gives him a well-meaning talk about how fortunate he is to have a loving family and that he can get his life back together and be what he wants etc. The message of the film for me would imply that all this is well meaning nonsense. Sebastian’s graffiti collective is closer to some truth about class war politics than pieties about bootstraps and knuckling down.
It has always been a great strength of Loach that he manages to get such brilliant performances from inexperienced actors. The performances of the four main actors in Sorry We Missed You are superb, particularly in some emotionally fraught scenes. The cumulative effect of watching Ricky and Abbie struggle through the long working days (“What happened to the 8-hour day?” Mollie says at one point) and try to deal with the issues at home is really devastating. This is one of the most unflinching portrayals of working life ever seen on screen but also, one with an obviously deep sympathy for the characters. Ken Loach is one of the great socialist filmmakers.
So, it is probably surprising that the film ends on a note of such despair. I watched the film in the IFI with two friends and we were distraught at the end, in shock, could hardly look at one another. When you remember earlier Loach films also during times of defeat, like Riff Raff, there was some satisfaction when Robert Carlyle burned down the building site at the end in revenge against a brutal employer. Here, we don’t have that. I am thinking that Loach sees the total hopelessness of the current system and that it must go. But, destruction of this atomising system of colossal enrichment of the few is a collective project.