It’s a bittersweet accomplishment that English filmmaker Ken Loach has been able to build such a prolific and defined career making films focusing on the downtrodden and oppressed, crafting brilliant film after brilliant film featuring grounded characters suffering through realistic strife. In no instance has it been more stinging and stirring than in his latest film, Sorry We Missed You, now streaming at SBS On Demand.
Spinning a tale that is both eternal and particularly relevant to those engaged in the current labour market, the plot follows the Turner family as father Ricky begins a new job as an independently contracted delivery driver. The good financial tidings this initially brings are quickly soured by the increased pressures the family is put under as the practical realities of Ricky’s employment begin to disintegrate their already fragile working class lives.
Loach is no stranger to such stories, and his decades of working within those working class contexts have given him a keenly tuned sense for avoiding the melodramatic while rising the emotional displays to their utmost, all without having those displays feel overly staged or constructed.
The astonishingly genuine texture of the film is a key aspect of its mood that is equal parts gripping and harrowing. The way that Loach approaches the subjects and the material from a colloquial street level brings it all in to confronting and immediate context.
Through the tight staging and overbearing camera placement, with the cinematography being handled by Robbie Ryan in a completely opposite style of his grand and broad work on Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, Loach puts the viewer into the cramped interiors of the Turner home, the slim streets of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and the ever more constrictive cab of Ricky’s van, and has us pushing along with the characters.
It is a push a great deal of the time as well; as much as the weight of all the work is brought down to bear on Ricky and his wife Abby during the tumultuous final act, the film presents the labour involved in all their tasks as being just as cumulatively crushing as those tasks would be individually.
Loach’s prowess for telling working class stories is in his willingness to show the work itself – there are not many films in recent memory that make the effort this one does to show the job being done. It doesn’t resort to montages either, playing out Ricky’s deliveries and Abby’s home nursing in real time to show the tangible amount of labour required for not just the physical job but the travel time and particularly the mental labour.
The presentation of that mental labour and the mounting toll it takes on the family is at first quite subtle before blossoming into an encompassing force that presses downward upon all their lives, and Loach’s placing us into the midst of the situation with the personable cinematography puts that weight upon us as well.
The Turner family’s fears and pressures become our own as we follow them through the troubles and tribulations of their daily lives, and there’s never a point where it becomes overblown and impersonal. The film never imposes its plotting or its own opinions on the audience, instead allowing viewers to naturally form their own stance toward the Turners’ indefensible predicament.
Perhaps Loach’s keenest sense as a filmmaker is a firm grasp of the obvious, that Ricky’s life doesn’t need flashy filmmaking techniques or additional emotive coding to be a harrowingly human story that will touch an audience, and it’s that understanding of how situations and characters naturally present themselves that allows him to tell these kinds of stories without blaring theatricality. Even when there are touching family moments, there’s nothing maudlin or saccharine to them, and the film doesn’t rest on them before flinging the characters and the audience back under the grinding wheel of work.
Despite the fact that all this might leave the film a difficult viewing experience for some, there’s a small but indomitable sense of hope running underneath that bolsters one to continue just as Ricky does. Whatever personal faults the characters may have, it’s their circumstances that are their downfall, and those circumstances can always be changed to help the people they’re hurting.
What Loach appears to be truly saying with Sorry We Missed You is not “These people are living bad lives” but “Why are these people forced to live bad lives?” He knows the answer and intrinsically so does the audience, and the artfulness lies in how he brings us to that realisation by our own accord, never alienating us with exaggerated misfortune. It is by any measure an important and fantastically well-made film, and it may end up being one of the most important and immediate ones you watch.
Sorry We Missed You is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
Follow the author @JPallasWriter