Michael Hayward's Blog

VIFF 2019: "Sorry We Missed You"

Michael Hayward

Just as the Downtown Abbey money machine gears up to provide eager audiences with yet another voyeuristic glimpse inside the mansions and the crenelated country houses of the British upper classes, we have an antidote to all that cream-puffery, from UK director Ken Loach.

There is a long and noble tradition in British cinema of films examining the lives of the working classes, and the films of Ken Loach are very much in that tradition, which came to international prominence with the “kitchen sink dramas” of the 1960s. Loach, who has always displayed his socialist sympathies with pride, is widely known and respected for his unflinching and impassioned critiques of capitalism, where the hard-won benefits of the labour movement are constantly under attack.

In Sorry We Missed You, Loach’s latest film, we have another working class family from the north of Britain, who are struggling to stay afloat in the new “contract work” economy. The mother, Abbie, is a contract nurse and in-home caregiver working long hours; the father, Rickie, was laid off from his job as a construction worker when the economy took a down-turn. At the start of the film Rickie is just about to sign on as a contract driver with PDF, a package delivery company.

All the risks—the purchase of a delivery van on long-term credit; the cost of insurance etc—are on the driver’s side; the financial rewards are scanty, and benefits that were once considered standard with any union job (vacation time, overtime, medical leave etc) are non-existent. There’s a wonderful scene in which the depot manager explains the appropriate terminology for their relationship: “You don’t work for us, you work with us.”; welcome to the brave new world of the working class.

If you’ve seen almost any of Loach’s previous films—such as I, Daniel Blake (which won the 2016 Palme d’Or at Cannes)—you’ll know better than to expect a cheery ending; in fact Sorry We Missed You resembles, in many respects, the classic melodramas of the 1930s. Those films, though, were very much a commercial undertaking by the Hollywood studios, who had discovered in the poor of that era an audience willing to pay a dime to see proof on the silver screen that there were others even worse off than themselves.

Loach’s films, I feel, are driven by a sincere compassion for the new working poor, and if his films exaggerate the difficulties confronting his characters, they do so in a sincere effort to illuminate the failures in contemporary (that is to say: capitalist) society, and not simply to prove that Loach, as a skilled director, can push our emotional buttons at will. Yes: the circumstances depicted on screen in Loach's films are often dire, and yes: the family whose lives we observe in Sorry We Missed You are almost impossibly sincere, and superhumanly determined to raise themselves entirely by their own efforts. Still, thanks to the skills of Loach and his co-writer Paul Laverty, we feel the pain of the family whose lives are being inexorably ground down by circumstances beyond their control. And when Abbie (who is as close to a secular saint as you are likely to see on screen) finally cracks, and gives vent to her true feelings to her husband’s employer, there was a spontaneous outburst of applause from the audience.

Watching Sorry We Missed You, I was reminded of the novels of Thomas Hardy, which were once required reading in first year English at university. I found Hardy’s novels unrelievedly depressing, to the point where I eventually swore off them entirely. Ken Loach’s films teeter on that same knife edge; I need an interval of at least a year or two before I’m psychologically ready for another.

Sorry We Missed You has one more screening scheduled during VIFF 2019: on Saturday, October 5 at 6:00 PM. You can view a trailer for the film here. You can buy tickets, and view more information on the film, here.



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