Newcastle, Present Day. Ricky is applying for a job as a White Van Man. He hasn’t held down a full-time job since the 2008 banking crash, but has found plenty of work building, gardening and doing all sorts of other manual work. He’s looking for something where he’s not interrupted by interfering management or held back by lazy co-workers.
One one level, Ricky and his wife Abby are Thatcher’s children. Ricky’s pride would prevent him from ever drawing the dole, and their dream is of buying a house of their own. When it becomes clear that Ricky needs money to pay a deposit on his White Van, neither questions the idea that Abbie must sell the car that she currently uses for her job as a health visitor. If needs must, she can take the bus.
This little transaction shows how institutional sexism weakens working class people of both sexes. Ricky does not forbid Abby from keeping her car, nor does he directly benefit materially. But because both have internalised the aspirations of home ownership, Abby’s sacrifice is seen as being the only way in which they can reach their mutual dream.
Ricky’s new “boss” Maloney tries to explain how their relationship is one of equals. Ricky does not work for the faceless conglomerate PDF, he is a contractor – his own boss. Of course, he must buy his own van (or hire one from the company at an extortionate rate), of course he is financially liable for any damaged goods or time off, of course he must still work 14 hour days, but what’s most important is his job title.
We all know where this is going, particularly those of us who’ve seen the trailer which is a litany of parking tickets, broken lifts and aggressive dogs. Ricky’s life is controlled by the small tracking device in his cab, which doesn’t just report where the parcels are, but follows his every move. He’s not allowed to leave his cab for more than 2 minutes or allow his daughter to drive along, he must keep a very tight time window and he’s certainly not allowed to be ill or injured.
Ricky’s hapless experiences are interspersed with those of Abby, now forced to travel to her clients by public transport. She’s on a zero hours contract, so is only paid for time actually spent in their houses, and must even cough up her own bus fare. Abby makes the mistake of seeing her clients as human beings, so is guilt tripped into out-of-hours visits which cannot be funded by her literally faceless boss (they communicate by telephone in between Abby’s house visits).
All this is having a debilitating effect on their children. Liza Jane is srill wetting her bed, although she’s now 11. Seb is more interested in spray painting advertising hoardings than in going to school, and when he is caught shoplifting a couple of cans of paint, he is suspended. But what else is he to do? “A” levels and University which would leave him tens of thousands of pounds in debt with a shitty job in a call centre?
Sorry We Missed you is a State of the Nation film which shows just how bad things have got for many working class people. Ricky and Abby aren’t feckless (whatever that is) – they both diligently work an incredible number of hours, and yet they are trapped in a debt spiral. It is a true shame that Ken Loach is about the only film maker who has the will (and is afforded the budget) to make films like this.
This is a long run up to an explanation why I don’t think that this is a perfect film. There are two common criticisms of Loach films, which often also come from the left. One – that they are unremittingly humourousless and mechanical – doesn’t convince me. Like every other Loach film, Sorry We Missed You brims with life-affirming humanity.
From football banter (sorry I can’t think of a better word) to brief moments of familial unity, the film’s characters manage to enjoy themselves, even in the bleakest moments. Most poignant is the pensioner who is no longer able to reach the toilet unaccompanied, but proudly shows photos of the soup kitchens that she helped organise for striking miners in 1984.
And yet there is one criticism of Loach’s films that I think has some validity here – that they contain an overall sense of hopelessness and a lack of a way out. Now I don’t think thIs is true for all of Loach’s films. In a sense, what separates his great films from those that are merely very good is whether they contain this sense of conflict and resistance.
So, Billy Caspar’s kestrel, the cleaners’ union in Bread and Roses, the International Brigade in Land and Freedom, and even FC United of Manchester in Looking for Eric all in their own way offer some hope that grim realities could be challenged and ultimately changed. None of these films contains a struggle that was successful in the end, but each offers a possibility that a different ending was at least theoretically possible.
This is important, both politically and cinematically. Politically, particularly in Times Like These, it is quite possible to watch Sorry We Missed You and to draw the conclusion “the bastards have won. There’s nothing any of us can do any more”. Such a conclusion would be wrong but thoroughly understandable.
But also cinematically, if you know that everything will end up terribly, then you’ve suddenly lost a heap of dramatic tension. What is so great about Ken Loach as a director is his ability to depict ordinary “unheroic” characters doing their best to survive under impossible conditions. But if everything is going to end up shit anyway, why should they bother?
You feel the need to judge Sorry We Missed You on two quite different criteria. As Loach obviously intends this to be a political intervention it must be commended for highlighting some issues in which few other directors show the slightest interest. For this reason alone, it is a must-see film, even if it is not Loach’s most successful intervention.
And on an artistic level, once again Loach shows in practise why screen acting need not be the preserve of the Laurance Foxes of this world. A fine ensemble cast of largely non-professionals is much more impressive than the Lewis racist has ever been. But still, the film’s underlying pessimism prevents the Very Good from being Great. It is not Loach’s best ever film, but even his second line films are streets ahead of those of most of his contemporaries.