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Posts Tagged ‘Ken Loach’

The Spirit of ’45 (UK 2013)

Posted by nicklacey on 21 March 2013

Attlee: man of the people

Attlee: man of the people

Ken Loach’s documentary, which celebrates the brilliance of the post-war Labour government, is a blast from the past in more ways than one. I can’t remember the last time when I heard the word ‘socialism’ used so frequently in a text and spoken with approval; probably Channel 4′s Eleventh Hour radical strand on Monday night in the 1980s. But here we have it, Clem Attlee stating, proudly, that Britain is going to be socialist. However, Ken doesn’t have rose-tinted lenses for, as Tony Benn says, the nationalised industries were always controlled top-down, often by the same people who’d managed them before, rather than by the people. However, the achievements of the time were wondrous.

Here Loach lets witnesses speak, and they do so with conviction; for example, the guy who explains how amazing it was to find a bathroom inside the council house he was moving into. And there is plenty of footage, from the likes of Housing Problems (1936), to show how things were before the war. These witnesses are now obviously old so it is doubly important to hear their perspective; such as the doctor who, on the day the NHS started, was able to tell a patient not to worry about paying for the medicine as it was now free.

Loach is obviously not celebrating the era for the purposes of nostalgia because we are on the verge of the disintegration of the welfare state as the vandals in government seek to destroy the mechanisms of equality. The last third of the film looks at the effect of Thatcher, the great destroyer, and we currently have a government of men who wish to fill her boots by taking the country to the far right. Today’s Daily Mail features a composite image merging Chancellor Osborne with Thatcher; certainly an honest comment.

I saw the film with two teenagers who struggled to keep awake. That’s not a reflection upon them, as teenagers tend not be interested in the past, and there are a lot of black and white talking heads in the film. But, of course, it is their generation that is going to lose the most if the rich are allowed to consolidate, and increase, their grasp upon the nation’s wealth. Youngsters need to look beyond themselves, as they have been taught to do in the fall-out of Thatcher (and Blair), and think of others to both save the planet (climate change) and themselves from a future of social strife and insurrection.

Film 4 homepage for The Spirit of ’45

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The Angels’ Share (UK/Fra/Bel/Italy 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 29 June 2012

The four young offenders at a whisky auction in ‘The Angels’ Share’ (l-r: William Ruane, Jasmin Riggins, Paul Brannigan and Gary Maitland)

The ‘Sixteen Films’ crew have triumphed again, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and chalking up a significant box office success with The Angels’ Share. Sixteen Films as a company was formed by Ken Loach with producer Rebecca O’Brien and writer Paul Laverty to make Sweet Sixteen in 2002, but the partnership between Loach and Laverty goes back to Carla’s Song in 1996. Rebecca O’Brien missed out on that film but she was with Loach on earlier productions going back to Hidden Agenda in 1990. The West of Scotland and Scottish culture has featured in six of the groups films in all (My Name is Joe in 1998, Ae Fond Kiss in 2004 and Tickets in 2005 alongside Carla’s Song, Sweet Sixteen and the current film.) I think it’s fair to say that while the earlier films were all located in a recognisable urban Scotland and dealt with aspects of contemporary urban Scottish culture, none have ‘played’ so openly with ideas about Scottishness (without losing track of a strong central narrative).

‘The Angels’ Share’ refers to the small amount of liquid which is lost during the long process of maturation of whisky. With whisky as the centrepiece and four young working-class Glaswegians deposited in the Highlands, clad in kilts and carrying bottles of Irn-Bru, Loach and Laverty are clearly teasing us with thoughts of Whisky Galore and Trainspotting – as well as several films by Bill Forsyth including Local Hero and Comfort and Joy.  Some reviewers seem to think that comedy is something new for Loach. They’ve already forgotten Looking for Eric but, more importantly, they’ve forgotten that dramas set in believable working-class communities often feature comic characters and comic sequences. Ricky Tomlinson, later star of The Royle Family sitcom on TV, started making us laugh in Loach’s Riff-Raff (1991). In most cases, however, laughter in a Loach film co-exists with tears and pain, not least in a film like Kes (1969). And it still does in The Angels’ Share. The difference is perhaps that the obvious pain is contained within the first part of the narrative so that the second part becomes closer to a conventional ‘caper movie’ narrative – and the film’s resolution is quite different in feel to something like Kes. In fact it could almost be described as upbeat.

Outline (no spoilers)

The protagonist in The Angels’ Share is Robbie a young Glaswegian with a violent past, once more in court but this time offered a way out via 300 hours of ‘community payback’ because he is about to become a father and the birth of his child might bring him to his senses. (Robbie is played by Paul Brannigan, a very talented non-professional who obviously has great potential as an actor.) Robbie does try to change, keeping off drugs and trying to avoid fights. He makes good friends of three other young offenders on the programme and forms a bond with his supervisor (the wonderful Jon Henshaw) who is lonely and missing his own family. It is by chance that Robbie discovers that he has a natural talent, a ‘nose’ for whisky, and this will lead him into a seemingly crazy scheme to make money. But to do so, he needs the support of his three willing but not necessarily accomplished fellow miscreants.

Commentary

The film narrative is cleverly thought through and encapsulates several political observations that we might expect from Loach and Laverty. A 100 minute film perhaps does not have the length to allow the gradual development/transformation of a character like Robbie, who does seem to go from extremely violent youth spaced out on drugs to astute schemer and smooth operator rather quickly. On the other hand, because of its subject material, the film does have the possibility to engage with debates about Scottishness and representation as outlined above and this makes what is otherwise a seemingly ‘light’ comic tale into something else. In interviews, Loach and Laverty have spoken about the waste of young people’s talents and the disease of unemployment in the increasingly unequal society that is modern Tory Britain (and which the SNP in Edinburgh can only ameliorate but not radically alter). Here are young Glaswegians who have probably never tasted whisky, the national drink of Scotland, and who never visit the beautiful landscapes of their own country (from which their own families may well have been ‘cleared’ by rich landowners a hundred and fifty years or more ago). That same whisky (and the rivers and glens used for game hunting) is now valued by collectors who can pay extraordinary sums of money for something created by craft workers who don’t receive the remuneration that is their due. In this analysis, stealing the angels’ share seems a just venture if the proceeds are recycled in the Scottish economy.

One of the most important debates in Scottish film culture focuses on the representation of what is termed ‘tartanry’ – the romantic attachment of a Highland past that is commonly found in Hollywood’s celebration of Braveheart or Rob Roy. In fact, much of the mythology is a creation of romantic novelists and Victorian gentry – and it has little meaning for the Scottish working-class of the central lowlands, whose culture has been derived from mining and heavy industry. Whisky has an ambiguous position in this context – ironically, I read a magazine article on the boom in the Scottish whisky industry only a few days before seeing the film. Unfortunately a new distillery in the highlands will only create around 150 jobs – whereas the closure of factories and shipyards loses thousands. For readers outside the UK, it’s worth pointing out that Irn-Bru, bottles of which play a key role in the narrative are iconic in Scotland as the brand is claimed to be one of the few local products to match the popularity of Coke and Pepsi.

The Angels’ Share was released in the UK and Ireland by the Canadian mainstream distributor e-One. They have followed the usual practice on Loach’s films of a limited specialised cinema release starting with 73 screens. After four weeks the film is still going strong, passing $2 million. It opens this week in France and Belgium where Loach is usually guaranteed a bigger audience than in the UK. The biggest box office winner from Sixteen Films has so far been the Palme d’Or winner, The Wind That Shakes the Barley (boosted by a massive Irish box office response) but The Angels’ Share might top it.

I enjoyed the film very much but I probably need to see it again. There have been the usual silly certification problems about the way that working-class Glaswegian youths use profanities – often as words of endearment as much as hostility but fortunately the film got the ’15′ Certificate it needed. I should warn anyone who isn’t familiar with Loach-Laverty that some of the early scenes are disturbing (and emotional) before the caper elements take over but what follows will I think attract a new audience as well as satisfying existing fans. I’m intrigued as to how an American release will deal with the profanities in the subtitles which will surely happen for that market. Here is the trailer to whet your appetite (it gives away more of the plot than I have done, so be warned):

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Ken Loach: Black Jack (UK/France 1979)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 3 October 2011

Jack and Tolly look for some evidence. (Image from DVD Beaver)

Black Jack is one of the least known of Ken Loach’s early films, appearing as the only cinema feature between Family Life (1971) and Fatherland (1986). During that long period, when Loach should have been establishing himself as a major international filmmaker, he was confined to television and then in the early 1980s almost kept off screens of any kind (as he would be again in the late 1980s). The television years were by no means wasted as John Hill points out in Sight and Sound, October 2011 and Days of Hope (1975) was, I seem to recall, shown on cinema screens in France.

So how did Black Jack come about and why was it generally forgotten for such a long time, only recently appearing on a BFI DVD? The DVD includes a Loach commentary and he has also spoken about the film in Graham Fuller’s book, Loach on Loach (Faber 1998). He explains that although the second of Kestrel Films’ releases, Family Life, had been a flop in the UK, it had attracted attention in France. Tony Garnett, Loach’s partner in Kestrel Films, thought that with the right property another film release could exploit this French interest. However, the UK film industry in the 1970s was in dire straits and the prospects of finding investors for a feature production were poor. Then Garnett discovered that a ‘children’s film’ stood a chance of attracting public funds via the National Film Finance Corporation. Kestrel Films were then able to embark on an adaptation of a novel by Leon Garfield that Loach knew from his own children’s reading. The story was changed in two crucial ways. First, ‘Jack’ was made into a Frenchman and second the location was shifted from Sussex to North and East Yorkshire. Clearly the casting of Jean Franval was supposed to help the film in France, but I haven’t been able to find any evidence of French money in the production – or whether or not the film played in French cinemas. The film did appear at Cannes where it won the Critics’ Prize and it is listed with various alternative titles suggesting that it went to both North America and across Europe – I suspect that a subtitled version might have worked well.

The story is set in the 18th century, 1750 to be precise. 12 year-old Bartholomew (‘Tolly’) finds himself unwittingly helping a giant Frenchman, ‘Black Jack’, escape the hangman’s noose and is then forced to accompany him in fleeing from York. On the road Jack and Tolly become involved in rescuing a young girl, Belle, who is being sent to an asylum so that her unseemly behaviour will not threaten the marriage arrangements of her elder sister. Eventually, the three companions end up travelling with a fairground troupe with Belle’s fate being fought over by her father, the men who run the asylum and a blackmailer, all determined to get her back.

When the film was released (by a small independent distributor, Enterprise Films) I’m afraid that, despite being a Loach fan, I stupidly dismissed it as a ‘children’s film’. I should have known better. Watching the film now, three points are clear. First, it looks terrific and demonstrates just how well cinematographer Chris Menges’ approach fitted in with Loach and Garnett’s vision. Second, it is clearly part of the overall ‘project’ of Kestrel Films and the broader spread of Loach’s work – and it also relates to other radical attempts to rethink ‘period drama’ during this period of British Cinema. Third, wonderful though it is, it doesn’t quite hold together – or perhaps it just has a couple of problems. But it’s still absolutely worth seeing.

The main problem, as Loach admits, is that there just wasn’t enough money to re-shoot scenes or to spend the necessary time on aspects of post-production. The sound mix is certainly a problem – at least on my old TV – but DVD Beaver (the bible on such matters) says it is OK. Loach tells us that the mix was done one weekend and there really wasn’t enough time. In casting the film, Loach and Garnett relied on the local performers that they had found in South Yorkshire around the time of Kes and who were subsequently used on other Barry Hines scripted projects. Some critics have objected to the ‘modern’ working-class accents of South Yorkshire being used by characters from rural North and East Yorkshire in the 18th century, but the accents worked for me – I simply couldn’t hear them well enough in the mix.

It is the hesitant speech of what I take to be mostly non-actors which coupled with Menges camerawork (using natural light, I think) that gives the film is naturalistic qualities. The interiors were shot on 35mm and the exteriors on 16mm and this works well. As with Kes, Menges brings to the image something that is simultaneously ‘realist’ but also ‘magical’ and perhaps ‘romantic’. Certainly it feels different compared to the more observational, but ‘immediate’, style of Barry Ackroyd seen in most of Loach’s later films in the 1990s and 2000s. I was pleased to go back and discover a paper I’d forgotten about by Deborah Knight entitled ‘Naturalism, narration and critical perspective: Ken Loach and the experimental method’ (part of the collection edited by George McKnight, Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach, Flicks Books 1997). Knight tries to rescue Loach from the critical attacks from both right and left. The attacks from the right are not surprising and shouldn’t really trouble us, but Loach certainly deserves to be defended from Colin McCabe and those Screen theorists who held to the notion of the ‘classical realist text’ and how it is inevitably a bourgeois form. This isn’t the place to discuss that debate in detail but it’s interesting that Knight traces the development of naturalism back to the novels of Emile Zola with their direct exposition of social ills in the industrial regions of North East France and how they influenced British novelists like Arnold Bennett and George Meredith. She then traces the influences through to the so-called ‘Angry Young Men’ of 1950s writing in Britain and the New Wave films of Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz. Loach, she argues is in this tradition. What McCabe sees as a weakness – the the influence of the realist literature of the late 19th century – she sees as a strength and she argues that it is one of three distinctive features of British ‘naturalist’ drama. It’s partly that the realist novels discussed contemporary social issues, but also that they focused on working-class and lower middle-class characters – ordinary people living through social changes. Secondly she picks out the emphasis on dialogue in British Cinema, partly influenced by the theatrical tradition, but also by the celebration of regional voices through various forms of popular entertainment. And finally she emphasise the importance of location shooting. This latter has always struck me as related to a general enthusiasm for documentary in the UK since the 1930s.

The attempt to offer a more socially-committed historical drama ties Black Jack to films like Comrades (dir. Bill Douglas 1986) and Culloden (dir. Peter Watkins, 1964). In terms of literary adaptation it follow Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963) and precedes Michael Winterbottom’s radical take on Jude (1996). In terms of British genre cinema it has links to Witchfinder General (dir Michael Reeves, 1968) and Rob Roy (dir. Michael Caton-Jones, 1995). All of these films, set at different times from the 17th to the 19th century, represent the rural regions of Britain in interesting ways and to some extent offer the possibilities of the picaresque and action-adventure found in American genres like the Western. Black Jack stands out because, despite the title, it has a pair of twelve-year-olds at its centre. Whether this makes it a ‘children’s film’ I’m not sure. I think that contemporary audiences of children would need some support in engaging with the story, which is very loosely structured, but the younger characters are both entertaining and affecting. The social commitment in the film resides in its drive to expose the conditions of the asylum and its central role for the ‘marginalised’ in society, e.g. the travelling fairground people. ‘Authenticity’ is always a tricky issue with historical films, especially those that suggest a form of realism. Black Jack features a pair of highly literate young apprentices (with no suggestion where they may have learned to write quite sophisticated letters, although Tolly does have an uncle who captains a ship). It’s the relatively large sums of money that are quoted that struck me as odd but perhaps this is intended to make it easier for audiences without the historical knowledge to follow the plot points easily.

Overall, Black Jack is well worth exploring. It’s perhaps surprising that Loach has not made other films set in the 18th or 19th centuries – periods of enormous social change and various forms of radical politics. He has made 20th century historical dramas of course, not least The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and we’ll try and look at some more of these in due course.

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Ken Loach: Route Irish (UK/Fra/Bel/Ital/Spain 2010)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 24 September 2011

Fergus looks down on the Liverpool waterfront from his sparse modern flat.

I’m not sure why I didn’t see Route Irish on its cinema release. Watching it now on DVD is not ideal but I can see that this is a complex work that feels very different but nonetheless shares elements from several titles across Loach’s back catalogue. It isn’t an easy film and seems to have almost been designed to alienate a casual viewer. Certainly it has fared very poorly in the UK (opening at No 27 on only 22 screens) and it’s interesting that the IMdb entry for the film carries few ‘external reviews’ from the usual critics and a pretty thin collection of ‘user reviews’ and bulletin postings – mostly condemning or praising the film on the basis of its politics or its status as a ‘thriller’. As usual for a Loach film, Route Irish opened on many more screens in France (126) for a Top 20 entry in Week 1 – but the screen average was still disappointing and this looks like being the least successful Loach-Laverty film for some time. Thanks to pre-sales, however, Sweet Sixteen Films is unlikely to lose its shirt.

Route Irish is about a metaphorical ‘journey’ taken by the lead character Fergus Molloy (Liverpool actor Mark Womack, mainly seen on British TV). As Loach points out in an interview, Fergus does not seek redemption as in a Hollywood movie. Instead he attempts to make some connection with the man he used to be. It’s virtually impossible and there is no happy ending. Fergus is an ex-soldier, once in the SAS. It is 2007 and for the last few years he has been working as a security contractor in Iraq running his own team but now he is back in Liverpool, unable to leave the country after a night-club incident and the confiscation of his passport. He is distraught when he hears that his best friend Frankie (played by the Liverpool comedian John Bishop), who he persuaded to join him on the team, has been killed on ‘Route Irish’, the most dangerous road in Iraq between the airport and the ‘Green Zone’. Frankie’s funeral sees the highly sceptical Fergus begin to ask questions, not believing anything of what he hears about Frankie’s death – especially from the men who run the security operation. He has one lead – a mobile phone that Frankie had left with a mutual friend for safekeeping and which carries photos and short video clips.

The phone provides a narrative device that allows the audience to ‘witness’ scenes from the security work in Iraq (filmed on location in Jordan). Fergus gets an Arabic and Kurdish translation of dialogue from a Kurdish refugee in Liverpool – recalling the use of refugee characters in Ladybird, Ladybird and Carla’s Song. We also experience flashbacks as Fergus discusses being a soldier with Rachel, Frankie’s girlfriend (who might have known Fergus first). In fact, the film begins with quite a subtle use of flashback which I didn’t immediately twig – as Fergus looks out across the Mersey, leaning over the rail of the ferry he hears the last messages that Frankie left on his phone. Cut to the title and then back to two young men larking about on the same ferry. The image is slightly degraded but the production can’t afford to present an image of 30 years ago, so it is only later that we get confirmation that this was indeed Fergus and Frankie as teens bunking off school and dreaming of travels overseas.

The ‘action’ of the film has been described as ‘Bourne-like’ by some critics and derided by action fans. It has also been suggested that it is a distinct change for Loach. Most of this commentary is nonsense of course. There is no attempt to compete with Hollywood on action scenes. Yes there are explosions and violent, brutal actions but similar things have happened in films throughout Loach’s career. The difference for me is Fergus as a lead. Womack plays him, successfully in my view, as severely emotionally damaged, barely under control, never sure when he is lying, fooling himself or being coldly honest. Often the characters at the centre of Loach films – scripted by Paul Laverty or the earlier ones by Jim Allen – have some form of warmth, some charisma, some sense of hope. Fergus has a difficult relationship, dependent on violence, with Rachel. One of the few times he laughs is when he is watching another ex-soldier, his friend Craig, playing for a blind football team. The image of Fergus laughing as Craig, wearing an Everton shirt, blunders into another player is very affecting. (Loach, a big football supporter, made one of his best TV plays in 1968 about supporters of the Golden Vision – Alex Young, Everton’s centre forward in the early 1960s.)

So, what are the politics of Route Irish that so enrage/bore some reviewers? I think that there are a couple of lines of dialogue that don’t quite work – Fergus remarks that Iraqi families ‘turned over’ by British and American soldiers will end up supporting Al Qaeda. This doesn’t seem to fit with Fergus. He is a political animal only in the way that he represents the damage done to the men who have served. His actions in the film are driven by guilt and revenge – and by this desperate attempt to re-discover something of what he and Frankie had before they became soldiers. In the process of doing this, Fergus reveals the political points that Laverty and Loach want to make about the futile British ‘mission’ and the damage done to Iraq and its people. In this respect, Route Irish feels like an honest film about a shameful period of British history in which British troops were asked to fight an illegal war and then, with private contractors (making huge profits), to clear up the mess. The look of the film is cold and bleak and although Liverpool has appeared in several earlier Loach plays and films, here there are few shots (the ferry apart) that are recognisable and none that romanticise the city  – everything is presented by Chris Menges in a very different style to the Kestrel Films productions such as Black Jack in 1979.

The original Press Conference from Cannes in 2010:

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Ken’s Jubilee – Into the Sixth Decade of Loachian Cinema

Posted by Roy Stafford on 12 September 2011

Susannah Lenton (script supervisor), Ken Loach (director), Barry Ackroyd (cinematographer) on the set of 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley', © Sweet Sixteen Films

Ken Loach was 75 earlier this year and he is currently being feted by the BFI with a re-release of his best-known film Kes (1969) (from Park Circus) and a première for his 1969 documentary made for Save The Children Fund and London Weekend Television. The latter has never previously been screened after the charity objected to the stance Loach and his collaborators took towards what they discovered in its children’s homes. The whole BFI programme at ‘BfI Southbank’ runs from now until October – see the details here.

Loach, a grammar-school boy from Nuneaton began his career post Oxford University as an assistant director in live theatre before moving to the BBC as a trainee television director in 1963 (see Lez Cooke’s entry on Screenonline). Since then he’s directed an impressive array of ‘television plays’, fiction features and documentaries over nearly 50 years. In that time he’s received mostly grudging praise for his output with only a handful of films singled out for acclaim – mostly those where the class politics are easier to overlook or the subject matter is closer to mainstream concerns. Perhaps what gets up the noses of so many commentators is Ken’s utter refusal to compromise in any way. Which is of course why some of us admire him so much.

I don’t like one or two of Loach’s films as much as the others but I still admire him for making them and I don’t doubt his commitment to the cause – these films (I’m thinking primarily of It’s a Free World) make me think again about my own politics. There is plenty else to admire too: the lack of interest in mainstream American filmmaking but the evident pleasure in being a respected filmmaker across many parts of Europe for one and the loyalty to close collaborators for another. Loach doesn’t like the idea of being an auteur and he recognises the importance of his relationships with producers and writers – no more than a handful of each associated with over 50 titles.

Loach is not a cinema stylist – someone for whom meaning is associated with extravagant camerawork or mise en scène. He does have a style of course. It involves casting an appropriate performer (not necessarily a film actor) for a specific character role defined by region, class etc., developing a naturalistic performance and filming it with an observational camera. As he said on a recent BBC Radio 4 interview, Loach believes in cinema as the ‘art of the possible’. Unlike other artists the film director and his/her crew can never have complete control, they can only try to complete the scenes in the time possible and within the budget restraints. Ken Loach films always come in on budget and they don’t lose money because they have been pre-sold to meet the budget target. Is Loach a great filmmaker? For me, anyone who can make emotionally engaging films about real social issues to a strict budget on a consistent basis and maintain working relationships and a personal politics in line with socialist principles in the face of film industry opposition is a great filmmaker without question. Ken is the man!

We are starting to post some of our previous work on Ken’s films with Keith’s comments on The Wind That Shakes the Barley as the first example.

Our earlier post on Looking for Eric includes some discussion.

You can view some of the lesser known of the Loach films on Loach’s own YouTube Channel here and learn more about Sixteen Films on the company’s website, including the current ‘in production’ title, The Angel’s Share.

Posted in British Cinema, Directors, People, Politics on film | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

The Wind That Shakes The Barley (UK/Ireland 2006)

Posted by keith1942 on 12 September 2011

The local lads playing hurley at the start of the film – construed by the British as an illegal assembly under DORA (the Defence of the Realm Act, updated 1915)

(This piece was first published under the title ‘The Wind That Shakes The Critics’ in in the picture 55 in Spring 2007.)

The Wind That Shakes the Barley  has received a very hostile reaction from right-wing political commentators in British newspapers, being called a “poisonously anti-British corruption of the history of the war of Irish independence” (Tim Luckhurst in The Times) or a “portrayal of the British as sadists and the Irish as romantic, idealistic resistance fighters who take to violence only because there is no other self-respecting course” (Ruth Dudley Edwards in the Daily Mail).

However, the reaction from film critics – as opposed to political commentators (some of whom, like Simon Heffer, attacked the film before even seeing it) – has been generally extremely positive. The right-wing Daily Telegraph’s film critic described it as a “brave, gripping drama” and said that Loach was “part of a noble and very English tradition of dissent”. The film critic of The Times said that the film showed Loach “at his creative and inflammatory best”. (www.wikepedia.org).

The response summarised above is not unusual for a film directed by Ken Loach. His 1966 television film, Cathy Come Home, was followed by one of the earliest television ‘balancing’ programmes. His films about organised labour, Questions of Leadership (1983) and Which Side Are You On? (1984), were effectively banned. When the subject was Ireland, as in Hidden Agenda (1990) on the ‘shoot to kill’ policy, the campaign became almost  hysterical. And so the BBC series, Days of Hope (1975) which included labour and Ireland, provoked leaders in both The Times and the Daily Telegraph.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (TWTSTB) compounds its sympathy for Irish republicanism by drawing parallels:

“I think what happened in Ireland is such a classic story of a fight for independence, to establish a democratic mandate and to resist an occupying army. Yet it was also a fight for a country with a new social structure. The British army in Ireland during 1920-21 did what armies of occupation do the world over – adopt a racist attitude towards the people they are attacking and occupying. They destroy people’s houses, engage in acts of brutality and generally oppress the people – and in Iraq that’s exactly what the British army is doing.” (Loach interview on www.socialistworker.co.uk).

The Irish dimension
Few of the reviews have actually explored these parallels in detail, focusing mainly on the Irish dimension. Quite often such comment include odd asides. Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian: “To be fair, there is surely a bigger market for anti-Brit diatribes across the Channel . . .” And Edward Lawrenson in Sight & Sound comments re the anti-Treaty hero “is his implication that any deviation from Damien’s principles is perfidy and his distaste for the very idea of compromise appropriate in these post-Good Friday Agreement times?” Lawrenson goes on to make a point common to a number of reviewers: “This coarsening of Loach’s artistry is most evident in the director’s depiction of the English and Scottish soldiers as either pantomime toffs or brutish squaddies.” He believes that Loach is using stereotypes, a technique not peculiar to this director.

In the same issue of Sight & Sound there is a review of United 93 (US 2006). This is also a historical reconstruction on film. The characterisation of the hijackers gets no mention in that review. What the film offers is a stereotypical group who “pray, read the Koran, bow to Mecca, perform ablutions, and hug goodbye – the rites of religious cleansing before a holy war.” (Cineaste, Fall 2006). Moreover, the only other foreign accent in this film belongs to the one dissenting voice among the passengers. It would seem that stereotypes are at least partly in the mind of the beholder.

Form and Style
What receives less attention than the political standpoint of the film is its form and style. As Loach remarked film “is absolutely a group activity”. Some sense of the production team and their use of film techniques is presented in a Channel Four documentary Carry on Ken. The title reflects Ken Loach’s liking for the oft-reviled ‘Carry On’ films. The programme includes examples of the improvisation techniques of actors, and points out the way that a long lens is used.

On the eve of Irish 'Home Rule' in December 1921 British Auxilaries commit another atrocity at the farmhouse where Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald) lives. (See comments below.)

One comment on the staging is by Lawrenson who refers to the farmhouse where several acts of violence by the British occur. He comments: “It comes across on the screen as an implausible and heavy-handed bit of symbolism.” This is to ignore the way that place can function to enrich stories. This is another aspect of the film accorded little attention, in that it builds on the iconography and generic elements of the cycle of films dealing with Irish Republicanism. The majority of such films have tended to stereotype the liberation fighters. Typical are two portrayals, James Cagney in Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) and Miranda Richardson in The Crying Game (1992). Both are psychotic killers. More sympathetic films romanticise the republicans, as doomed victim in Odd Man Out (now on re-release) or as heroic leader in Michael Collins (1996). In neither case is there much involvement with the politics of the Republican movement, or of the occupying power, Britain.

Republican traditions
This is exactly what TWTSTB does do. And it does so by tapping into Irish academic and popular traditions of Republicanism. So the film not only relied on Irish locations and casting, but the narrative features actual figures and events from the period. It also uses the iconography of Irish films. Little is seen of these in the UK but they go back to the early years of the Irish Free State. Channel Four screened The Dawn (1936) in the 1990s. This film centres on two brothers with different responses to the war, and it features scenes of marching volunteers and ambushes of the Black and Tans. But it does not address the post-Treaty Civil war.

Box Office
Despite or because of all the publicity, good and bad, TWTSTB has done very well – for a Loach film (£3.7 million and still on release). Initially, the UK release was planned to be only thirty prints, but with 300 touted for France, the UK figure was upped to 105. On the first weekend the film posted £390,000, “nearly three times that of his previous biggest opening Sweet Sixteen” (an 18 rather than a 15 Certificate film). ‘The Numbers’ column in Sight & Sound went on to point out that: “The Irish territories accounted for 73% of the . . . box office total.” The Irish territories apparently include the North and the South; both lumped in with the UK. This is a poetic confirmation of the argument put by Dan (Liam Cunningham) against the Treaty, “England would still rule you”. (In France the film has made over £3 million.)

Value judgments
Two aspects of the critical responses strike me especially in relation to TWTSTB. Whilst critics do not claim to be objective, there is a sense in which they claim to be judging films on identified technical and aesthetic standards. Yet the revealing asides in so many reviews indicate that value judgments are often just as important. As with Loach himself, ‘politics inform your aesthetics.’ British critics also tend to dislike didactic cinema, ‘film with a message.’ Jeffries comments: “but there is a deeper problem: we are always sure whose side Loach is on and the dramatic journeys he take us on are ultimately not engaging because we know where they are headed.” The reviewer’s comments on United 93’s message reckons that it: “terrifyingly conveys the nature of the threat facing the world today and poignantly conveys onscreen the decision by a few brave individuals to fight back”. Both films clearly embrace and present a set of value judgements about the world of their story. The differing comments are revealing.

Ken Loach was quoted on one occasion: “I’ve spent as much time defending my films as I have making them.” Does he mind that much? Just because his films are not mere entertainment but social and political interventions, they spark discussion and debate. I think it is highly likely that the arguments in the review columns are endlessly repeated and developed long after audiences have left the cinemas.

References
Sight & Sound reviews of the two films are July 2006. ‘The Numbers’ is August 2006.
Carry on Ken, A Feasible Film for Channel Four tx  More 4 on 17 June 2006.
Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons and John Hill (1987) Cinema and Ireland, Routledge

Posted in British Cinema, Politics on film | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

Looking for Eric (UK/Fra/Bel/Sp/Italy 2009)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 3 July 2009

Steve Evets as Eric the postie

Steve Evets as Eric the postie

The last Ken Loach film before this one (It’s a Free World, 2007) was released first on television in the UK and it dealt with the new brutalism of capitalism with its exploitation of migrant labour. For me it was the least enjoyable of the Loach team’s work in recent years. Looking for Eric is a return to mainstream Loach territory and a very enjoyable movie for a cinema visit. However, I guess that in the circumstances it is perhaps a little too ‘comfortable’ – although it has its moments in exposing current political issues. Perhaps it is the ‘happy ending’ and the football focus that has led some critics to see the film as a departure, a mainstream breakout film. I don’t think it’s either.

If you know Loach, I think that the two other films Looking for Eric most resembles are Raining Stones (1993) and My Name is Joe (1998). Raining Stones, written by the late and very great Jim Allen, is also set in Manchester with another well-meaning but hopeless working-class man this time caught in a spiral of financial doom. It is also one of the bleakest and funniest films to come out of the UK. My Name is Joe is a romance (one of Paul Laverty’s early scripts for Loach) bringing together a man seemingly trapped by his demons with a sensible woman from social services and set in Glasgow. If you’ve seen either of these films, you’ll not be surprised by what happens in Eric. Laverty has become a skilled scriptwriter and the whole thing works very well – although audiences will be puzzled by some of the relationships in Postman Eric’s dysfunctional family. (I’m grateful for an IMDB poster for explaining at least one plot point.)

Looking for Eric features a Manchester postman (brilliantly played by Steve Evets) who is helped out of his crisis of self-confidence by the appearance of the ex-Manchester United footballer Eric Cantona (playing himself – who could possibly impersonate him?). This is woven into the plot quite cleverly so that we understand why ‘little Eric’ might imagine himself talking to his idol. Don’t believe all those stories about this being a big departure for Loach. In 45 years he’s used all sorts of surrealist touches – remember the on-screen football score when the PE teacher pretends to be Bobby Charlton in Kes?

Cantona was famous in the UK for both his fantastic football skills and his assured way of dealing with the media via a series of wonderfully gnomic utterances – don’t leave the cinema before the end of the credits or you will miss Cantona’s most famous press conference. The film isn’t really about football, even if there are a few minutes of Cantona magic in video clips of his famous goals. Watching United usually gives me the same pleasure as root canal work at the dentist’s, but even I would admit that Cantona was a genius on the football field. Now he’s an actor and he brought the initial idea to Loach and Laverty. Cantona the alter ego offers sensible advice to Eric, both in terms of his relationship with his ex-wife and his problems with his stepsons. His most important advice is that Eric must rely on his teammates – the other posties who do care about him. What we see in the film is the ‘saving’ of little Eric when he takes the advice offered. The warmth of feeling and the humour in the film is there in most Loach-Laverty films, but in this case there does seem to be something that might be called a happy ending. However, along the way we do get a firm and convincing message about how solidarity and collective action is the way to solve problems.

I must mention Stephanie Bishop’s performance as Eric’s ex-wife, Lily. Loach’s films always feature inspired casting and Kathleen Crawford, based in Glasgow, has worked as casting director on the last few Loach features. She’s done a great job. All the cast are Mancunians, or at least Lancastrians, as far as I can work out. Stephanie Bishop has no previous credits but I thought she was terrific. As Loach says on the film’s website, casting an actor like John Henshaw opens up so many possibilities because he can switch from serious drama to broad comedy in a flash. He matches the performances of Ricky Tomlinson in previous films. He becomes the team leader of the posties – most of whom are played by comedians from local Manchester clubs. Overall, the policy of ‘local casting’ means that we do believe that all of this could happen in a ‘real’ community.

Only one negative came from the screening – the print. You can never tell with digital prints whether the fault was in the original footage, the conversion to digital or the projection itself and the computer, but several sequences were presented in a way that made me feel like I was watching the film through a pair of old tights. Since Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography is usually one of the pluses for a Loach film, this was a real disappointment. Still, it couldn’t prevent my enjoyment. If you have a choice, try to see the analogue print.

As usual, this Ken Loach film opened earlier and wider in France where it will end up earning considerably more than the £1 million it has so far earned in the UK.

Posted in British Cinema, Film Reviews, Melodrama | Tagged: , , , | 14 Comments »

 
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