Loach's Loving Labors
Celebrating the honest effort and ongoing productivity of the average working man and woman, today’s Labor Day holiday is largely meant to honor all whose day-to-day efforts in the marketplace benefit the national and common good. Yet it can’t completely obscure the struggles of many to find work or obtain enough remunerative labor to make ends meet. Social activist and film director Ken Loach has for five decades been chronicling on television and cinema screens the stories of hard-pressed working-class folk to obtain their just rights and privileges, sometimes via scabrous, socially provocative humor and more often through compellingly drawn, dramatically heartrending human relationships at critical crossroads. Just when he thought he might retire at age 79, he and long-time screenwriting collaborator Paul Laverty came up with another bracing film about lives displaced by the recent recession. With its moving depiction of the obstacles a monolithic British government health and unemployment assistance bureaucracy place in the way of a carpenter (Dave Johns) thrown out of work after suffering a heart attack and a homeless single mother (Hayley Squires) with two youngsters, I, Daniel Blake (2016) won the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or and the Locarno International Film Festival Prix du Public. Called “one of Loach’s finest films, a drama of tender devastation that tells its story with an unblinking neorealist simplicity that goes right back to the plainspoken purity of Vittorio De Sica” by Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, the film premieres in North America this Thursday September 8 at the Toronto Film Festival and in the U.S. at the New York Film Festival Saturday October 1, prior to opening in British cinemas October 21 and a later U.S. rollout via Sundance Selects. Twilight Time offers three Loach hi-def Blu-ray releases that showcase his socially attuned filmmaking style, including the politically charged romance Carla’s Song (1996) and the crosscultural capitalism vs. Communism study Fatherland (1986), but it’s the third release – a bracingly appropriate 2 by Ken Loach double-feature disc of Riff-Raff (1991) and Raining Stones (1993) – that speak particularly to the notion of the rewards and discontents of work – along with the desperation that shadows the soul-crushing lack of it. Riff-Raff (starring Trainspotting and The Full Monty firebrand Robert Carlyle in his movie debut) gives us a stark picture of haves and have-nots in its depiction of an itinerant building crew on the construction site of a luxury apartment building, where class inequity and corrupt cost-cutting make the concept of “honest labor” and dubious and dangerous proposition that leads to resentment, tragedy and an eruptive retribution. Raining Stones is gentler in tone but no less heartbreaking in effect, telling the story of an unemployed but devoutly Catholic father (Bruce Jones, also a future The Full Monty co-star making his movie debut) with nonexistent job prospects resorting to a series of occasionally comic but more often perilous schemes to secure enough money to buy his daughter a First Communion dress. Loach’s gift for bringing out the underlying decency and dignity in the neediest, most conflicted souls puts the audience on his side, even if society’s unforgiving gaze and his own wrongheaded schemes take a punishing toll. “Good work” and “honest labor” may often be elusive, but Loach’s 50+-year toil bringing us stories like Kes, Ladybird Ladybird, Land and Freedom, Bread and Roses, The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Jimmy’s Hall makes the appreciation of Labor Day even more palpable.