Dir: Ken Loach; Starring Kris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Stone, Katie Proctor
Ken Loach may have won the Palme D’Or in Cannes for both The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) and I, Daniel Blake (2016) but the 82-year-old director’s new feature is at least the equal of both of them. Late in his career, Loach retains the ability to make heart-wrenching and very topical dramas that expose the grimmer aspects of contemporary British society. Scripted by his regular collaborator Paul Laverty, this is another of Loach’s films about decent people trying to do the best for themselves but being defeated by a system in which “everything is out of whack”.
Ricky (Paul Scholes-lookalike Kris Hitchen) is a “grafter” who has never been on the dole. He’s a Mancunian living in Newcastle. His wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) has a job on a zero hours contract as a carer for the elderly. Many of her clients are incontinent or suffering from dementia. Ricky and Abby have two children, a rebellious 15-year-old boy (Rhys Stone) who expresses his angst at the world through his graffiti, and a bright and precocious 11-year-old girl (Katie Proctor). They’re a close-knit family but they’re in debt.
In order to keep working, Ricky joins the “gig economy” as a van driver delivering parcels. Laverty’s screenplay takes a grim pleasure in detailing the distorted language that his employers use. He is working “with” them, not “for” them. He doesn’t get wages but charges fees. He is his own boss – but he has no rights and no control over his hours. The van hire system is mind-boggling in its complexity. He is told that his hand scanner (the “gun”) is the most precious object in his life. It enables customers to track their packages and his bosses to keep tabs on him.
Ricky is one of those everyman-types found in many of Loach’s films: decent, resilient and immediately likeable. He’s a Man Utd fan who is always ready to answer back when Geordie customers taunt him about his football team.
The film shows just how precarious matters are for the family. It takes very little to push them toward crisis. Abby has to sell her car so Ricky can afford the deposit on his van. That means she visits her patients by bus – and therefore has less time to spend with her teenage son, who is getting into trouble at school. Both husband and wife end up working 14-hour days, six days a week. As they grow more and more tired, they make bad decisions. Family harmony begins to fray. One accident or bit of bad luck leads to another.
As in the great Italian neorealist films, Loach makes the everyday problems of his characters seem the stuff of epic drama. We know that if Ricky damages or loses the van, the consequences could be catastrophic. His immediate boss, Moloney, likes to boast that he is “patron saint of nasty bastards”, and has no sympathy at all if one of the drivers is facing a family or health crisis. All that matters is hitting targets.
Sorry We Missed You captures brilliantly the alienation and existential anguish that its main characters feel. There is nothing they can do to help themselves. The more they fight to change their circumstances, the worse those circumstances become. The subject matter may be grim but the storytelling is utterly absorbing. You can’t help but be drawn in as Ricky makes heroic efforts to get parcels to their recipients. If he dawdles for even a moment, the gun will beep to remind him that his deadline is approaching. Customers don’t show any sympathy for the delivery drivers or even try to think about the conditions in which they are working. All they want are their packages.
Loach is sometimes accused of indulging in crude polemics but he is very delicate and insightful in the way he portrays family relationships. There are fleeting moments of humour and lyricism here. The British director cares deeply about his characters and makes the audience care too. What he won’t do, though, is graft some Hollywood-style happy ending on to the story to make viewers feel better about what they’re watching. Instead, he and Laverty pursue their story to its logical conclusion, ending the film in a way that is both ingenious and devastating.
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