Neither will be the same
I’ve never seen Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home (1966) or Kes (1969) all the way through; and since I’m not so young or unBritish to know why, a sense of unfinished business started long before the world according to Ken found its way into my life. But now that Bread and Roses, (2000), Sweet Sixteen (2002), Tickets (a job lot with Ermanno Olmi and Abbas Kiarostami, 2005) , The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), and It’s A Free World (2007) have all gone where no Loach has gone before, the first thing I realise is that at least three of the films aren’t particularly British; even Sweet Sixteen is so seriously Scottish that maybe it, too, should be classified as foreign.
Less flippantly, I realise that Loach, as a true internationalist, will always be at home wherever he goes. But what probably broke my own resistance to him is this new and literal wild rover potential — something that appeals to the gypsy in my soul and appeases envies of the working-class boy who, despite or because of National Service, Oxford, and the BBC, went on to become . . . well, I’m still wondering what that is. The point is, I can’t keep saying, “All right, Ken, I know, I know. I bloody know!” Though the scripts are still inclined to a wooden polemic about flesh-grinding social realities, I also see hints of a more complex humanity, sometimes even the odd practical idea to beef up all that “something must be done” rhetoric.
Given the length of his career, one would expect a few changes along the line; but too many directors run dry in late career to deny Loach the fact that he’s as engaged as ever. And if it’s a bit premature to start summing up, we can already say that, like his Italian neorealist heroes, he’s helped to ensure that working-class acting and writing talent is more routinely at the disposal of a still largely middle-class industry. In fact, one of the reasons why, in 1966, I couldn’t bear to watch the Cathy story wasn’t so much the heartbreak of it all but the fact that the lead, bless her, sounded too posh. (I know Americans don’t operate with the same class/accent antennae as the Brits; but I guess what I’m describing isn’t entirely unknown to them — maybe just one of those “known unknowns.”)
Bread and Roses jars a bit, too, but this time it’s mostly intentional; and in a story of how things are for economic migrants from Latin America to the States we get much more than a drip-drip sense of hapless female victimhood. In fact, Loach and writer Laverty, with help from an abduction-foiling Pilar Padilla (right), jump us immediately in and out of the white slave trade; and for a moment we hope that this is the sort of brilliant slipping glimpse that will characterise the entire movie. If things don’t go quite that well, the tone of the piece does allow some levity amid scenes of uncomplaining adaptation to and cunning defiance of brutal employment practices in the hotel industry. Again we can thank Pilar Padilla for much of that. But it’s the real-life union activist, Rosa, who would in my own remake — and according to the best neorealist principles — steal the show. However, even if such fantasies were played out, Rosa would probably still refer to the replacement director as “a little old man.” (Not quite the insult it sounds; but no great ego-boost either.) As for what Rosa is up against in reality, Loach and Laverty draw powerful portraits of the immediate oppressor class — the hirers and firers who, semiliterate and thuggish with it, aren’t exactly rebelling against golden social prospects to act the way they do. In this they reminded me exactly of the so-called cadres who run village life for just under a billion people in China: again the burly and brutal poor grinding down their less burly, less brutal, even poorer brothers and sisters. This I learned from the book Will the Boat Sink the Water? by married couple Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, banned in China, but much too carefully put together to be seen as any sort of “betrayal.”
In fact, lurking around here there’s a universal problem as big and nasty as they come: when your own guys start telling it like it is about your own backyard (and front yard too), a sense of treachery can suddenly reach right into your innermost spaces. This means that resenting directors like Loach for bringing bad news about home from home is not exactly unique to me. Seeking excuses, I could go on a rant about his cinematic superficiality: how good-looking his young leads tend to be — true of much good cinema, yes, but there in Loach’s films from the start — so don’t tell me the American experience somehow warped a truer, warts-and-all vision.
In Sweet Sixteen, for example, we find huge amounts of audience sympathy resting on the head and shoulders of the nice-looking, albeit very talented and authentically working-class young lead (Martin Compston, right, with Loach). But is it actually more poignant when a bright, good-looking young chap sinks under social pressures into a life of crime than when his equally bright but plainer chum — the one we don’t meet — falls down the same chute? I suppose this could be a blind alley, the fitting destination for all blind rages. But while I’m in confessional mode, how about the blind British reflex of lumping Loach in with Alan Sillitoe, Harold Pinter, Alan Clarke, and Dennis Potter, all close contemporaries from working-class backgrounds, all making names for themselves in film? The point is, there’s that implicit accusation again: none of them are as interested in or exploitative of youthful beauty as Loach.
Becoming seriously odd about this, in a box-ticking exercise that includes strong interest in (male and female) physical charm, the profiles of Ken Russell and Ridley Scott compare really well with Loach’s . But that’s probably a glimpse that has slipped a wee bit too far into winter’s brain-numbing grip.
Tickets, wherein three leftist auteurs interweave tales of passengers on the Rome express, isn’t the most obvious choice for restoring a sense of balance. First on board is Ermanno Olmi, whose Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) is as profoundly sympathetic and restrained a study of peasant life as you will find in world art. Here, however, Olmi’s presentation of an aging professor who dreams of a last fling with a beautiful young woman is the one-way ticket to embarrassment that it sounds — certainly a warning against too much confessionalism on the part of the mature male.
By a trick of cinematic fate, the contribution of Abbas Kiarostami seems to be based on a close recent study of Olmi’s masterpiece, not so much in its subject but in its mixture of intense emotional engagement and visual poise. Here, the general’s widow fails in the end to straitjacket her young personal attendant; but she’s so utterly lost in defeat that we feel something for her as well as joy for the self-liberating young man. Indeed, I suspect that when future film buffs return to this movie it will be for Kiarostami’s effortless-looking master-class.
The same can’t be said of Loach and the three devoutly raucous Scottish football fans whose hearts of gold we see aching for self-revelation from . . . well, from the moment one of them has his train ticket stolen by the teenage boy whose refugee family accompanies us all the way.
Going a little out of sequence, after his crack at the territory in America, Loach tackles migrant labour issues head-on again with It’s A Free World. Officially, he’s back on British soil; but because the plot concerns the legal black hole in which so many of the problems of modern multiculturalism are played out, there’s no sign of anything we could call terra firma. A couple of young British women deceive themselves into thinking a spot of entrepreneurial exploitation only means that “everyone’s happy”; meanwhile their clients and workforce suggest otherwise. So we do get the feeling that all is definitely not as it should be in the sunlit backstreets of the South East. Maybe for some audiences, this probes the issues deeply enough. But for me, we’re back in the business of “I know, I know.” Or, less plaintively, “We’ve seen more informative documentaries on TV.” Indeed, a lot of us are now meeting these new immigrants in our classrooms and even, oh my God, our own front rooms, as well as on our screens; and we’re not that shocked to find that social change is running ahead of our immediate abilities to regulate it. Indeed, without implying complacency, this is surely part of what the new multiculturalism must mean before things start to look “normal” again.
Of course, it’s a brave person who can define “normal” in this context. And with the new uncertainties, there are always new temptations to try some very old and spectacularly unsuccessful ways to sort things out. Frequently repeated acts of extreme political violence dominate The Wind That Shakes the Barley (right) and turn it into what I think is Loach’s most genuinely challenging movie to date. Atrocities committed against whole Irish villages by the British Black and Tans at the time of the First World War are no doubt accurately portrayed. But the film is also courageous enough to show the “politically justified” vindictiveness of Irishman on Irishman that also shaped the history of the time. That word “history” shouldn’t mislead anyone; because if there’s sometimes reason to accuse Loach of too many illustrated lectures, his sense of human tragedy is as strong here as anything the Ancient Greeks or Shakespeare have to offer. One obvious benefit of this is that we aren’t sidetracked too often by the glamour-puss problem. Less crudely stated, it will strike some of us that here, indeed, a “terrible beauty is born” — this being a time when it really was the only available kind.