God bless sentimental Europeans. On Sunday night, The Angels' Share, Ken Loach's latest movie, won the Jury Prize at Cannes. Think of the Jury Prize as a big thumbs up from the team. You haven't made the best film, you're not the best director, but, hey, we like the cut of your jib. Keep on truckin'. They don't pretend the 75-year-old director's current work compares to his past glories. Which is only right and proper. The Angels' Share's take on class war is desperately larky, an attempt at Ealing comedy that lacks the brains or finesse to deliver any killer blows. But so what? Ken made Kes.
And he would have kept on making films like that – wrenching yet genuinely funny classics – if we'd only let him. All through the 80s and 90s, he kept the faith, impervious to the fact that young British directors, terrified of being dubbed "worthy" and "political", routinely described his work as crude and grim. Alas, the lie got repeated so often, UK audiences began to believe it was true.
In 2002, Loach surpassed himself with Sweet Sixteen, a subtle, entertaining look at heroin addiction (and dealing). As in so much of Loach's best work, it featured a flawed mother, in this case played by a complete unknown, Michelle Coulter. Loach's mother figures can be gorgeous, trendy and spunky (as in Cathy Come Home, Poor Cow, Ladybird Ladybird and It's a Free World). Or they can look, as here, like a gutted tenement block. What they all share is a complex humanity. They inspire a painful kind of longing. They haunt the skull. But did you go and see Sweet Sixteen? Do you know anyone who did?
Loach has always struggled, financially, to get his films made. And even when his movies strike a chord, as with The Wind That Shakes The Barley, they rarely make a profit. A separate but related fact is that he has never, ever, been "hot". Not one of Loach's films has even been nominated for an Oscar – hard to believe, but true. He's not the kind of photogenic underdog Harvey Weinstein likes to champion.
No wonder that Loach and his scriptwriter, Paul Laverty, have for some years now been chasing the popular vote all by themselves. These days, you get the same, superbly edgy actors (Steve Evets was the highlight of Looking For Eric), but the stories often seem tagged on, the mood artificially light. God forbid that the audience should emerge depressed... Anything, anything but that.
Loach, in my opinion, is not quite as true to himself as he once was. But the appreciation of his many fans in Europe surely suggests it is time for the British to show a bit more love. Kenneth Loach has been representing us for many a year (almost as long as her Maj). No need to wave a flag, but do let's give thanks and praise.
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