Friday, May 31, 2024

Ken Loach in the 20th century (Part 2 of two)

The opening of The Old Oak and a retrospective of Ken Loach’s theatrical fiction films at the Film Forum has led me to a nearly comprehensive binge of Loach’s film, minus a few of his TV docs and special projects. Although most of his films provide a time capsule view of the eras and places that they were shot in, they also explore political situations that are just as relevant today as when the films were made. His work is particularly relevant these days, when there are few (few!) political filmmakers at work in fiction films. (Oliver Stone seems to have moved entirely over to making documentaries.) 

By way of an introduction, we can situate Loach as the last “kitchen sink” British filmmaker; he in fact took that genre and wrenched it away from its “angry young man” beginnings and told stories of individuals, couples, and communities. He also has sketched the politics that created the situations his characters are in. The importance of this aspect — that Loach is a filmmaker who makes working-class stories that emphasize the political forces that have trapped his characters — can’t be overstated.

Loach’s filmmaking career had an odd trajectory, in that he was among the most celebrated British TV directors in the Sixties and made a critically acclaimed and popular film (Kes) in 1969. But then, due to the changing landscape of British cinema, he only made three more theatrical films in the Seventies and Eighties.

His ability to find funding for theatrical films hit a brick wall in the Eighties (coincidentally, the Thatcher era in England). Thus, he turned to making political documentaries for TV, but the majority of these were shelved or banned outright. Hidden Agenda (1990), a well-financed political thriller with familiar stars, rejuvenated his reputation. With the aid of producers Sally Hibbin and Rebecca O’Brien and a small group of excellent scripters (led by Jim Allen, and later Paul Laverty), the Nineties saw Loach become an internationally known and respected British filmmaker. His latest film, The Old Oak, is his self-professed “last” movie.

Any discussion of Loach should acknowledge that the man himself disavows the auteur theory. He feels that film is a collaborative art, and he regularly heaps praise on his collaborators for making the films work so well. Watching his films, though, one gets the impression of several through lines that have been in his work from the Sixties to the present.

On a visual level his films are distinguished by location shoots done in little towns and urban neighborhoods. The “lived-in” feel of these places is palpable and situates the characters perfectly. On the editing level, Loach has favored fades to black to indicate the passage of time. His earlier theatrical films were filled with long shots held for several seconds longer than one would expect. As of his Nineties “comeback,” he and his editor Jonathan Morris cut more and were thus able to better capture the flow of emotionally charged conversations.

As for his work not utilizing any Brechtian “distancing” or modernist visual techniques to convey the political message (in the manner of the radical cinema of the late Sixties, including, most prominently, Godard), Loach has spoken of not wanting to alienate working-class viewers, who he hopes will go to see his films. He aims “to try to make films for the class which we think is the only politically important class — the working class — and therefore not to make elitist films, or cineaste films, but to make films which can be understood by ordinary people.” [from the article “Family Life in the Making” from the periodical 7 Days, quoted in John Hill, Ken Loach: the Politics of Film and Television, BFI, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p. 131]

Shooting Carla's Song.
His work with actors is quite peculiar. Loach’s fellow filmmaker Ermanno Olmi worked almost exclusively with non-professional performers, and Mike Leigh continues to do weeks (and in some cases months) of workshopping the backstories of the characters with his actors. Loach instead chose early on to use some non-professionals (based on their real-life connection to the characters they play) in key roles, blending them in the cast with professional actors. He also does not want his actors to know ahead of time what fate awaits their characters.

His method of working with actors is best summarized in John Hill’s 2011 book about Loach: “This has led him to shooting a film in sequence in order that actors experience the story in the correct chronological order and undergo a similar emotional journey to the characters that they play. It has also led him, in many cases, to withhold the whole script from actors so that they do not know what is going to happen next and, therefore, arrive at a scene with the same amount of ‘knowledge’ as their characters. Loach also avoids extensive rehearsals and encourages actors to improvise as a way of achieving spontaneity in their performances. As he has commented, ‘exact words are not terribly important — the important thing is what is happening.’” [p. 121] 

Loach’s disputing of the auteur theory aside, he has shown one major trait exhibited by the greatest auteurs: consistent subject matter that is explored from different angles in different features. The first common theme one can see is the placing of an innocent at the center of a narrative; this innocent will no doubt be betrayed, but he or she has enough fortitude to keep on going. In some cases these innocents embark upon a project — be it a boy training a kestrel (Kes), a mother hoping to regain custody of her children (Ladybird Ladybird), or a “skint” man wanting to purchase a communion outfit for his daughter (Raining Stones). 

With David Bradley, star of Kes.
In many cases, a violent act changes the protagonist’s life for good, whether committed while a crime is taking place or when family or spousal violence is occurring. In some cases, the violence is state-sanctioned and is a matter of daily living for the protagonists, especially if the film is an ensemble piece.

Much has been made of the fact that characters in Loach’s films are very often undone by someone from their own class or someone whose profession is meant to help the people whose lives they end up destroying, in their efforts to “go by the book.” (The theme of being betrayed by someone in one's own social group was explored, of course, by Fassbinder in a few of his films, most notably Fox and His Friends.) The most common sequence in a Loach film is an impassioned discussion between people in a large group — these sequences started appearing in his telefilms in the late Sixties, but they have carried on to this day (albeit with smaller groups, sometimes only pairs of people discussing the problem). These are often the most profoundly political (and profoundly humane) scenes in his films. 

Another consistent element in his films is the apparently “random” (Loach’s own term) view of the characters’ lives. He has certain plot elements in his Nineties films that simply go away, and in others there is a sharp tonal shift from comedy to drama (and vice versa) that is sometimes quite jarring. On the whole, though, the films that undergo these tonal shifts contain some of the best drama, and the best comedy, in his work. 

On a lighter note, one trope that has appeared in his films since the mid-Nineties is a “walk-on” by a three-legged dog. These pooches never factor into the plot, but they’ve become a kind of good-luck charm for his productions and also serve a sort of metaphor for his heroes and heroines who refuse to give up the fight.

In this piece I will cover Loach’s work up until My Name is Joe (1998) and will hopefully follow up with a piece about Loach’s sixteen 21st-century films.


In my previous blog entry about Loach, I referred to his “ten first films.” Since that time I’ve watched the other surviving telefilms (which started out being referred to as “plays,” but rather quickly in Loach’s career became films when the location shooting outdistanced the scenes shot in-studio). A fourth play, “Wear a Very Big Hat” (the second one Loach made, chronologically) has apparently been wiped by the BBC. 

“Tap on the Shoulder” (1965), from the series The Wednesday Play, has a very un-Loachlike scenario, in that it is simply a crime caper about the robbing of gold from an airport. The film, Loach’s first in the “Wednesday Play” series, is indeed very workmanlike in its construction. 

The only aspect that connects it to Loach’s later work is the way that the characters are sketched as working class (thanks to their accents) and that one character — a friend of the thieves who has become wealthy by doing various financial deals and is dying to get a knighthood (the titular “tap on the shoulder”) for his donations to charity — is clearly a working-class gent who aspires to be in the upper crust and is willing to buy his way into society. (His character supplies the alibi for some of the thieves, as they are present the night of the crime at a high-society party that he is hosting.) 

“The End of Arthur’s Marriage” (1965) could simply be described as “Loach goes mod!” This film relied almost entirely on real locations and was shot before the trendsetting play that preceded it in the third season of “The Wednesday Play,” namely “Up the Junction.” That play had its share of elements that now signal as “Swinging London,” but its roots were also firmly in the “kitchen sink” British cinema of the time. 

“Arthur’s Marriage” is a purely playful film, with a slight plot about a man who goes to buy a house with his well-off in-laws’ money and then loses the house to a better-off couple. He then goes on a spending spree with his little daughter that turns into a crazy journey throughout the city, in the manner of Zazie dans le metro. The film has a great deal of the “Richard Lester style” (decoded on this very blog as the “Spike Milligan style”). The influence of the French New Wave (primarily Godard) and silent comedy is felt throughout.

The most memorable aspect of the film besides its playful camerawork and editing is the musical score, which includes songs that match the action, which are either sung by the actors themselves or by nondiegetic pop singers (including the later-famous Long John Baldry).

“The Coming Out Party” was his final 1965 film for “The Wednesday Play” and it draws upon at least three of the preceding plays. Like “Arthur’s Marriage” a child is a central character (here he’s the protagonist), like “3 Clear Sundays” a carefree criminal milieu is sketched (with some of the actors playing basically the same characters they did in the earlier play), and like “Tap,” it focuses on some blithely uncaring working-class crooks. 

The title of the film refers to a forthcoming party for the little boy’s mother, who is coming out of jail. The little boy initially learns that his mother is in jail and thus he disappears on his caregivers (his equally crooked grandparents) and wanders around trying to find the prison his mother is in. There are various “time capsules” scenes, including one where he and another little boy break into a toy store and play with everything they can find. 

The only jarring element in the film (considering its time and place) is that the adults openly discuss sex in various sequences, with the boy’s parents going upstairs at a pub to do it on the pub owner’s bed. All in all, the film is very light in tone but ends up imparting a serious message about the way that certain children can grow up without a single caring adult in their life. (Here, the mother’s friend, played by “Cathy Come Home” star Carol White, seems to be the only person caring about the boy’s welfare.) 

Loach moved on to feature films in 1967 but did go back to TV on various occasions in the ’70s and particularly the ’80s. One of the most prestigious and argued-about projects was a four-episode miniseries charting fictional characters experiencing events from the First World War through the General Strike of 1926.

Days of Hope (1975) is a rather dazzling accomplishment, in that it is a blatantly Socialist view of historical events in Britain in the guise of a drama. The films were all written by Jim Allen (the scripter of Loach’s “The Big Flame” and “The Rank and File”), whose screenplays spawned some of the most overtly political films of Loach’s career. 

In the first part alone, we are shown the way that conscientious objectors were taken into the British army and, if they refused to cooperate with their officer, were bound and dragged on the ground by other soldiers and, in one particularly harrowing scene, tied to a pole in the enemy’s view. (The events in this series may seem fabricated, but Allen was basing his drama on all-too-real events.) The film also contains the first treatment in a Loach film of the way that the British dominated Northern Ireland. 

Part 2 of the series could have stood on its own as a separate telefilm. (In fact, Loach originally envisioned the series as this single film, and then Allen’s vision grew until four episodes were arrived at.) In this part, a central character deserts the military and goes on the run, witnessing countless ways in which British soldiers abuse the residents of a Northeastern English town. 

One of the hallmarks of Allen’s scripts for Loach that, as noted above, became a centerpiece of Loach’s work is the inclusion of an extremely lively political discussion taking place between characters with different viewpoints. In “Days of Hope” this type of scene occurs frequently, between small and bigger groups of characters. Here those characters are miners, debating how to get the bosses to agree with their demands — one solution that is suggested is blowing up the entrance to the pit, thereby stopping all business in and around the mine. 

By the third part, the conscientious objector has now opted for party politics and has become a Labour MP. Stephen Rea has a relatively brief but important role as a reporter who tells this MP about a deal the Tories and Labour made to put down the workers’ uprising. 

The fourth and final episode of the series is where it all comes to a head. At points this episode is decidedly better when depicting the negotiations that were had about the General Strike that eventually did occur. Unfortunately, by this point in the narrative, the three major characters (the Labour MP, his radicalized wife, and her brother, the soldier who deserted and has become a member of the Communist party) stop being central to the drama and simply become “types.”

At this point Allen and Loach were seemingly so intent on faithfully depicting the events of the General Strike and allowing for different Left viewpoints to be spoken (from the firebrand Communists to the calmer, more willing to compromise Labour leaders) that the film doesn’t quite clearly acknowledge that the General Strike is in fact taking place. This assumes the viewer knows enough to realize that the discussions by that point aren’t merely discussions but are deadly serious negotiations that outline future government and trade union strategies for dealing with radicalized workers. 

The fictional characters’ arguments are thus banal compared to the grand tapestry that Allen and Loach are sketching. Although occasionally a line is uttered by one of the three protagonists that sums up beautifully the perspective of the authors, as when the sister says that “Social democrats always betray.”

As always with Loach’s work, one watches “Days” in amazement that he actually got a series this radical onto the usually staid BBC. 

“The Price of Coal” (1977), written by Barry Hines (Kes), was Loach’s final contribution to the “Play for Today” series (which was simply “The Wednesday Play” on a new night, Thursday). This excellent two-part film is less polemical than “Days of Hope” and also is brilliant in its conception, as the first part presents us with a light comedy set against the world of coal mining — making us love the characters in the process — and then the dramatic second part puts a group of them in jeopardy. 

The first episode is the kind of working-class comedy that Loach returned to with Riff-Raff and Raining Stones in the ’90s. A group of miners are told by their bosses to clean up all areas of the mine, in preparation for a visit by Prince Charles. In the process, we meet the characters and begin to really like them.

There are discussions about how ridiculous it is to clean up a mine and its exterior for a brief visit by a Royal, including one where the lead character brings up the amount of money being spent on the visit. This film also has a sublime final image — the lead character’s son, having played hooky and not joined his classmates in attending the local pomp and circumstance accompanying the Prince’s landing in a helicopter, is seen oh-so-quietly quietly fishing and ignoring the whole bloody thing. 

The second part does indeed capitalize on the affection for the characters that was created in the preceding film. Here, an accident occurs in the mine, with four men being buried in the rubble. There is a classical TV cliffhanger conceit — namely, will our pipe-smoking lead character be found alive in the rubble, or has he died? 

But Hines and Loach mostly focus on the feelings of betrayal the workers feel (because of a lack of safety measures — a theme returned to in
Riff-Raff) and the frayed emotions of their children and spouses. One wife waiting to find out if her husband is alive sums up the feelings of all by saying, “It’s just not worth it,” having their husbands and sons work in the mine for decades and then suddenly being killed in a mishap. 

Black Jack (1979) is the most unusual item in Loach’s filmography. A period piece that plays like Treasure Island, it has a little boy as the lead, going on various adventures wherein he encounters a French giant with the titular name. It’s actually a charming film and fits with other Loach films when we see the functioning (and the fraternity among the members) of a traveling sideshow. It’s very interesting to see him operating on this kind of level. And it works, as long as you watch it with lowered expectations. 

The Gamekeeper (1980) was Loach’s last fiction film made solely for TV; in the case of some of his later films he made them for international theatrical distribution and an airing on U.K. TV. (His next, Looks and Smiles, had a similar distribution pattern.) It’s a stirring and extremely quiet piece by Barry Hines that follows the life of a gamekeeper from season to season. Hines explicitly said the novel it was derived from and the script he wrote for Loach were “about class” and not actually the daily chores of a gamekeeper. 

Hines clearly chose the profession of his protagonist for specific reasons — most particularly because gamekeepers must be especially loyal to their employers, threatening any interlopers on the owner’s land, be it by adult men wanting to poach animals or children who simply want to play in the trees (and perhaps steal an egg or two). We see the lead being quite stern with local boys from working-class families and lenient to little girls who are picking flowers — and happen to be from adjacent, richer homes. 

A scene in a bar here finds some of the gamekeeper’s friends arguing that the land didn’t initially belong to the current landowners, but the government presented parcels of land to rich individuals to farm on. (It “weren’t their land in the first place,” his friend says.) In one scene we see the gamekeeper’s mask slip as he himself argues that the landowners don’t deserve their land. 

The film is a somber one that does focus on the nastier things the gamekeeper has to do, including raising birds who will be eventually killed by the landowner, but time is also devoted to how much the gamekeeper’s wife and children don’t like his job. (His wife complains that if the landowner for any reason fires him, they have no place to live and no financial resources to fall back on.) 

All told, the film creates a wonderfully bucolic atmosphere that is countered by the actions the gamekeeper has to take, including killing animals that come in to feast on the birds he’s raising. Its allegorical side about differences between social classes is apparent throughout, but Loach and cinematographers Chris Menges and Charles Stewart crafted such beautiful images that it ends up feeling like an elegy for a profession that is clearly a relic of the old feudal days and forces a man to sternly lecture kids climbing a tree. 

Looks and Smiles (1981) is Loach’s only theatrical film to address the state of Thatcher’s England while she was still in office. It’s definitely a bleak film and the only one of Loach’s fiction features to be shot in b&w. Barry Hines wrote the script about two young men who are out of school and out of work. One of the two joins the army and the other (who is prevented from joining the army by his father, who doesn’t want him cracking heads in protests and riots) scrambles for any kind of work that is available. 

The film shows us an unvarnished view of Sheffield at the time the film was made. Adding to the time capsule nature of the film, we see our unemployed anti-hero going to the disco with his moody girlfriend. (Everyone in the film is essentially moody.) The political aspect arises as a result of the bleakness of his life and the fact that his friend welcomes cracking heads over in Ireland. (“We’re just doing a job!” he insists.) 

In interviews Loach has declared his dissatisfaction with this film, noting that he later stopped using the kind of long shots that appear throughout the film — where we see the bleak landscape all too clearly and it’s not a pretty sight. 

A few of Loach’s Eighties political documentaries are archived online, thankfully. They are not essential viewing by any means, especially for those who are not already interested in the politics of that period in the U.K. A Question of Leadership (1981) was the first of a group of documentaries that Loach made for British TV in the Eighties, nearly all of which were either shelved or shown a while after they were made. (And nothing ages worse than a very “current” political doc.) 

The Red and the Blue (1983) intercuts political conferences held by the Conservative and Labour parties. As is usual with Loach’s docs, one knows where he stands politically, but he does try to give both sides a hearing in this particular telefilm. We see the ritziness and organization of the Conservative conference counterpointed against the less formal approach of the Labour party. (It’s definitely tuxedos and evening gowns vs. street wear here, with the Right-wingers attending a banquet dinner and the Leftys going for fish and chips.) Watch it here.

Which Side Are You On? (1984) was also shelved by its initial production entity, “The South Bank Show.” Loach assembled a number of songs, poems, and stories written by workers taking part in the ’84-’85 miner’s strike. The usually very “liberal” South Bank producers (including host-producer Melvyn Bragg) felt that Loach and company were making too much of a political statement and that the higher-ups in their corporation wouldn’t like it, so the show was aired on a different network. Watch it here.

Fatherland (1986) might well be the most disappointing of all of Loach’s work, since it starts out with an intriguing plotline and then turns into a “can we find the Nazi (or was he even a Nazi)?” third act that is a complete shambles. Playwright Trevor Griffiths wrote this one and, even though Loach has said that he himself was the one that made the film run aground, it’s clearly Griffith’s fault for utilizing for the single-most-obvious way to end a story about a German searching for his father. 

The initial plotline follows an East German singer-songwriter who seeks asylum in the West so that he can be free of censorship. He then encounters the different ways that an artist can be censored in the so-called “free world” and the compromises that one must make in the music business. This part of the film works well; it’s when he goes in search of his missing father that the film becomes a hunt for a suspected Nazi. 

The Eighties were definitely not a peak time for Loach’s earnest approach to political drama. It wasn’t just the hairstyles, the outfits, the fake music videos, and surreal dream sequences (found in Fatherland) — it was the need to make narrative concessions to try to make the film “commercial” (a concern he abandoned in the Nineties and then made his best work). 

The only intriguing part of the Nazi-hunting second half of the film is the fact that the singer’s father didn’t want to kill Leftists taking part in the Spanish Civil War; he was ordered to do so by the Stalinists who were controlling things during the conflict. This bit of concealed history is dealt with far better in Loach’s later Land and Freedom

View from the Woodpile (1989) is a hybrid of documentary sequences and staged recreations. This telefilm follows young people in a theater group in the West Midlands. The group perform plays based on their experiences and we witness scenes that the actors staged for Loach’s camera. The subjects tackled include drugs, poverty, and pregnancy. 

The film’s best scene finds the group responding to a TV ad advertising a personnel firm. The ad is hokey and simplistic (and I believe manufactured for this film). The young people eventually wind up *in* the ad voicing their complaints to the unseen narrator. 

Another memorable moment finds one of the young men seeing police practicing marching maneuvers outside his window. The fascist aspect is evident, with the boy concluding, “They’d rather lock us up than help us.” Watch it here.

Hidden Agenda (1990) was Loach’s return to form with a theatrical feature whose thriller structure is enough to keep the average viewer interested, while the political aspects of the plot (as ever with Loach, based on real stories from Northern Ireland) reward viewers looking for headier fare. 

Jim Allen scripted and seemingly took at least a few notes from the work of Costa-Gavras here. The plot follows an honest police investigator from England (Brian Cox) sent to Northern Island to discover why an American human rights advocate (Brad Dourif) was killed in a mysterious shooting on a back road. It seems he had been given an audio tape with proof of various psy-ops carried out in Ireland by the British. 

The decision here is whether the English cop and the dead man’s girlfriend (Frances McDormand) will simply accept what the Northern Irish government says is the truth of the killing or whether they will continue the investigation, despite being warned to stop by various interested parties. The film is compelling, although it isn’t one of Loach’s best. 

Riff-Raff (1991) resumed Loach’s update of the “kitchen sink” style. Although the main character, a Glaswegian (Robert Carlyle) who finds work on a construction site where no safety measures are in place, harkens back in some ways to the “angry young men” of late Fifties and Sixties kitchen sink films, Riff-Raff is primarily an ensemble picture, in which we attach to all of the characters working on the site and to the lead character’s lover, who has some major problems of her own. 

At this point, Loach decided that it would be good for his ensemble works to have the presence of standup comedians in the cast, as they can both liven up a character and can also ad-lib when faced with new situations that weren’t previously in the plot. This aligns with Loach’s preference to only let his actors see a small part of the script for each shoot (all of which are carried out in as closely chronological order as possible). Thus, he can introduce new elements of the plot to the performer while the camera is rolling and get very genuine responses from the performer (while they stay in character). 

Loach has spoken about this: “An actor should see the world through the eyes of the character. That’s why I don’t like actors to see the entire script of the film they’re working on. I don’t want them to take the birds’-eye view. I just want them to go through the events at the level of their character.” [Loach on Loach, edited by Graham Fuller, Faber and Faber, 1998, p. 46] 

Here the tonal changes mentioned above come into effect: the major romantic relationship that is rather enchanting in a low-key way ends suddenly, with the girlfriend character just ceasing to be part of the lead’s life and thus the film as well. 

Loach has addressed the “random” elements that come into his films and then do not reappear: “An idea we had… is that there’s something quite satisfying about a story that has an arbitrary quality. When you add it all together what is apparently arbitrary actually complements the whole story. It’s like creating a mosaic or a collage from different fragments.” [ibid, p. 59] 

Viewers can also sense that the repeated mentions of the safety violations on the construction site will inevitably pay off in some very serious drama, in amongst the workplace activity. 

Raining Stones (1993) served as the second part of the one-two punch (with Riff-Raff) that made Loach a bankable name in both British indie and international circles. The film could in fact be a sequel to its predecessor, as it has some of the same cast members and reflects the same view of working-class difficulties (and has similar tonal changes). 

The plot is extremely simple — a man whose finances are already strapped wants to buy his daughter a new outfit for her first communion. Thus, he commits a series of petty crimes and eventually ends up in dutch with a ruthless local loan shark. He’s a proud man who won’t take charity (and won’t accept a used dress instead of a new one). 

Thus, he goes on a journey that ends in the kitchen of one of the cinema’s most humane priests. In the process scripter Jim Allen and Loach sketch daily life in a town where (as is noted in one scene apropos of a young couple having a public argument) crime, booze, and drugs, are all seen as perhaps not fitting but inevitable choices made by the locals. 

Ladybird, Ladybird (1994) is one of two high points in Loach’s Nineties filmography. It’s a memorably sad and sweet film that has moments of rage and hits as hard as his famous 1966 telefilm “Cathy Come Home.” (With which it shares one major plot point, the removal by social services of children from a mother.) It returns us to the strong emotions and bittersweet moments that came from the Italian Neo-realist films, including Loach’s personal favorite, Bicycle Thieves

This was only one of two films that Loach shot a video introduction for, to be played at the recent Film Forum festival of his films. In this intro he provided background info on the real woman behind the “Maggie” protagonist in the film. He also praised lead actress Crissy Rock to the hilt, noting that she did not receive her due when it came to acting awards for the film (although she did win Best Actress at the 1994 Chicago International Film Festival and the Best British Actress by the London Film Critics Circle). He cited one review, which noted that she was simply a working-class woman playing someone like herself — Loach, in turn, noted that hers was one of the best performances he’s directed. 

This film, scripted by Rona Munro, has none of the tonal changes that occurred in the preceding two features. Here is a straightforward story, albeit told through flashbacks, of Maggie, whose romantic choices have been very bad for her; in addition she has a wild temper that is the result of childhood beatings and sexual abuse. At the point we meet her, her four children have been taken away by social service workers. She encounters Jorge (Vladimir Vega), a gentle, low-key man from Paraguay who is very unlike her previous lovers, who have been abusive to her. 

As the film moves on, we become invested in the story of Maggie and Jorge. They deserve to have a quiet, normal relationship, as both have gone through traumatic situations. Both of them are wounded, but only Maggie lashes out in anger, which Jorge diagnoses properly in one scene as her pain manifesting as anger. 

It’s clear as the film moves on that society (in the form of numerous social workers) has judged her incapable of changing; she sadly reinforces this argument by reverting to sarcasm and bursts of anger at the social workers. It’s evident that Jorge has mellowed her in certain regards, but she still strikes out too often and had too wild a younger life, to the point where a child she has by Jorge is taken away from her by social workers. 

The film thus provides us with arguably the best illustration of Loach’s recurrent theme of working-class people being betrayed by those whose job it is to help them. The social workers are not depicted as villains — in fact, Maggie’s anger is palpable and her mood can change on a dime — but we also become aware that when Maggie has indeed changed as a person, she is still thought of as the woman she used to be. 

Ladybird is the closest that Loach has moved to the cinema of Cassavetes and Leigh, where we see how family pressures can explode and change a person; also how someone can change for the better, thanks to a newfound attitude toward life (and perhaps a new friend or lover).

Land and Freedom (1995) was the other masterwork by Loach in this period. The film boasted the last script by Jim Allen, who had previously written the most political of Loach’s films, from “The Big Flame” and “The Rank and File” to Days of Hope and Hidden Agenda (and the slyly political Raining Stones). Allen is a key figure in Loach’s life, not only for the onscreen collaborations the two had, but also because, according to documentaries about Loach, Allen helped radicalize Loach in his personal life. 

The film sheds light on the unknown fact (at least to non-history scholars) that edicts on behalf of Stalinist Russia sold the Republicans and Leftists from other countries down the river during the Spanish Civil War. (This fact was introduced in the last third of
Fatherland, but that film’s script had by that point become a "find a Nazi" scenario.) Allen and Loach do a great job of making history exciting and engaging here, while continuing the exploration of the theme of betrayal of the Left being accomplished best by the Left. 

The frame device involves a young woman who goes through her grandfather’s possessions after his death and discovers his involvement in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Many Leftists felt that a defeat of Franco would lead to a defeat of Hitler. Instead we see how the brigade of foreign Leftists split into two fractions, both of whom were hostile to the other. 

One of the most memorable moments in
Land is when David (Ian Hart), the grandfather character, is guarding Communist party headquarters, which is being fired on by another Leftist faction. David, who is from Liverpool, discovers that the man shooting at him from across the way is from Manchester. Both end up asking each other “Why aren’t you over here with us?” and neither man has an answer.

The romance in the film between the Liverpudlian and a fiery Spanish radical is the only conventional note that is struck. Otherwise, the film boasts one of the best of the “passionate conversation” scenes to be found in Loach’s work. In this instance, the argument is over whether to collectivize the land that has been liberated from the fascists. The conversation takes place in both Spanish and (heavily accented — French, Scots, Liverpudlian) English. 

Loach discussed the sequence in
Loach on Loach: “To us, it seemed great drama, great conflict, a very human struggle put forward in concrete terms. One guy says, ‘Look, I work harder than you lot. Why you share what I have?’ Then there’s the old fellow who’s seen it all, and who says, ‘The revolution’s like a pregnant cow, and if you don’t help it at the moment of delivery, the thing will die,’ which is very true…. The scene shows people struggling in a very practical, human way, just to see how they can move. When they make a decision, to me that’s a very moving thing, because these are people who’ve been on their knees all their lives. They’re saying, ‘This is us — we can take these decisions.’” 

When asked how much of the scene was scripted (since non-professionals played a number of roles in it), Loach answered, “Jim had written some good speeches and interaction between the participants, but as it developed people obviously took off from the script and got into the cut and thrust of it.” [pp. 103-104] 

Since we know that the fight against Franco failed, Allen creates a hopeful ending involving the granddaughter reading a quote at her granddad’s funeral.


Carla’s Song (1996) opened a new era in Loach’s films, as it was made from a script by Paul Laverty, who soon became Loach’s screenwriter of choice, with whom he has worked on every fiction film but one, from this film to The Old Oak. Laverty had firsthand experience with Nicaraguan politics, as he had lived there for a few years in the mid-Eighties working for a human rights organization. 

There are two sections to the film, which is set in 1987. In the first section (which seems similar to both Riff-Raff and Raining Stones), George (Robert Carlyle), a bus driver in Glasgow falls in love with Carla (Oyanka Cabezas), a woman from Nicaragua who is haunted by her husband (who may or may not be dead). In the second part of the film, the bus driver and his lady love travel to Nicaragua and the film becomes an explicitly political one. 

The love story between the leads seems doomed and also too idyllic to believe — George falls for Carla all too quickly, while it seems from the start that she realizes her affair with him is only a way station on the road back to Nicaragua and her husband. When the film is in Nicaragua, though, Laverty and Loach focus on the solidarity of the Nicaraguan workers, who explain their situation to George in a stirring discussion scene set on a truck. 

The film could be placed alongside Roger Spottiswoode’s Under Fire (1983) and Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986), as it offers a white man’s view of the conflict in Latin America, which was entirely manipulated by the U.S. in Nicaragua in the form of the “contras.” In this case, Scott Glenn as an aid worker gets to review the history of U.S. involvement in one speech he makes to Carlyle. 

Thus, the film is both valuable and a bit too heavy handed. Laverty’s scripts would grow subtler as the years went by. 

The Flickering Flame (1996), a documentary, found Loach returning to the subject of the Liverpool dock workers, originally discussed in the fictional “Big Flame.” This particular documentary is incredibly straightforward in its technique and does (as one could expect) dote on the point of view of the workers, who were sacked by their employer when they protested working overtime for low pay. The version online looks like a rough cut, as the images are quite scratched up and there are no opening or closing credits. Watch it here.

Loach closed off his work in the 20th century with My Name Is Joe (1998). We are back in the Glaswegian working-class milieu here, with the film beginning at an AA meeting attended by the lead character, Joe. Joe begins dating a health inspector (a UK name for a certain type of social worker). He lets her know his backstory and the two seem to be headed for the altar when Joe begins to help out a friend in big trouble with a local gangster. 

There is a heavy tonal change here, from a light account of the lead characters (nearly all unemployed) to the heavier, more violent moments featuring the gangster. Here the “switchover” works because we do feel for the characters and given the nature of Joe’s “one day at a time” sobriety, we know it’s very probable that he is going to go off the wagon at some point. That said, the film’s conclusion demands a willing suspension of disbelief. 

As Loach entered the 21st century, he was lucky enough to have a support system going with Rebecca O’Brien/Sixteen Films as his producers, Laverty as his regular scripter, and a number of top-notch professionals as his crew. In the ensuing 25 years he has put out 16 films (counting three shorts for anthologies and one feature-length theatrical documentary). 

The best part of the above being that, aside from one or two missteps (where he seemed like he was copying himself), his work has continued to mature and become even more significant as the years have gone by. 


Fuller, Graham, editor, Loach on Loach, Faber and Faber, 1998 

Hill, John, Ken Loach: the Politics of Film and Television, BFI, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011 

Leigh, Jacob, The Cinema of Ken Loach: Art in the Service of the People, Wallflower Press, 2002

NOTE: When not being featured in retrospectives like the recent one at Film Forum, the films of Ken Loach can be found on disc and on various places online, from the usual streaming services to sites like YouTube and where film fans post entire films. I thank cineaste Paul Gallagher for help in obtaining some of the films.

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