By Ryan Harley
Ken Loach has never been one to stray away from tackling controversial topics in his films. Under the microscope in his newest film ‘Sorry We Missed You’, is the nature of zero-hour work in post-recession Britain – and the way that it affects the lives and wellbeing of those who undertake it.
In ‘Sorry We Missed You’, Loach and his long-time writer and collaborator Paul Laverty explore in-work poverty and zero-hour contracts through the travails and stresses of family life in Newcastle.
The Turners, victims of the financial crash of 2008 and the subsequent fallout, are; Ricky – an ex builder turned delivery driver going through his first experiences with zero-hour work, Abby – a care worker also on a zero-hour contract, and their two children Seb and Liza-Jane.
Taking centre stage in the film is the adversarial atmosphere that zero-hour work fosters. Ingrained into Ricky’s job is competition with his fellow ‘self-employed’ coworkers – most obviously in terms of the competitiveness of drivers and management to compare targets and metrics, but also in the competition between workers for work itself. From the start, Ricky’s arrangement with his employer is framed in an almost punitive way, where weakness in the organisation is punished by sanctions, fines, and loss of work entirely.
Ricky is treated with cold hearted brutality by his employer – himself just another worker competing with other national branches – utterly bereft of empathy in the pursuit of targets. Amongst the workers themselves any real cohesion is battered out of them by the self-employed, solitary work that they do – although there is a vague sense of camaraderie and empathy between Ricky and some of the other drivers.
Interspersed throughout the film are some moments of genuine levity – and they are much needed in scenarios as bleak as this. Laverty’s dialogue between characters in these moments is commendable, and garnered hearty laughs despite the tone of the wider film. It is clear that the Turners are a family that love one another profusely, and it is this that makes the reality that they face so hard to bare.
However, these brief light-hearted moments give way for the utter indignity suffered by the Turners – which becomes really uneasy as the film progresses.
Slowly but surely the family life of the Turners is dissolved piece by piece. Liza-Jane experiences troubles sleeping and Seb’s truancy becomes a serious issue – while their parents are unable to take time off to address these problems due to the nature of their employment.
As pressure upon all four of the main characters increase, two scenarios develop that feed that pressure, and the cycle just continues – spinning ceaselessly out of control.
In some ways it is hard to consider the impact of ‘Sorry We Missed You’ without looking back at Loach and Laverty’s last film; ‘I, Daniel Blake’. Also set in Newcastle, ‘I, Daniel, Blake’ explores a 59-year-old’s struggles with the illogicality of the Department of Work and Pensions’ fit-for-work assessments in the wake of suffering a heart attack.
In essence, the pair’s latest film picks up were ‘I, Daniel Blake’ left off – proving that it is not only those navigating a hostile benefits system and at the mercy of Tory austerity that can be pushed to, and over, the edge – but that even those in the relative safety of work can find themselves in precarious situations that can profoundly damage those who work in them.
By examining these parallel scenarios in the same town, in a film even featuring some of the same visual motifs, Loach’s analysis of the developments of capitalism in the last decadeis even more effective than if they were to be looked at as completely separate pieces.
The issues addressed across the two films do not stem from one institution, company, government, or policy. It is capitalism itself and the exploitation inherent within it that is responsible for the proliferation of the shameful conditions seen in both ‘I, Daniel Blake’ and ‘Sorry We Missed You’.
What makes this film, and Loach’s previous work, so powerful in its conveying of these failures of society is its profound grounding in reality. The working lives of Ricky and Abby Turner are simply the lives lived by countless hundreds of thousands across the country. It is this heart-breaking reality that drives Loach and Laverty’s message so poignantly. I’m sure that no viewers of Ken Loach’s recent films have ever escaped unaffected by his work – and his latest offering is no different. Deeply affecting from start to finish – ‘Sorry We Missed You’ serves as one of the greatest triumphs in Loach and Laverty’s storied career.
Sorry We Missed You will screen at GFT from 1 -14 November. Tickets for the first week (1-7) are on sale now