Some people always seem to get the films of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach mixed up but it’s easy enough to tell them apart. Leigh is the one who sneers at the working class whereas Loach is the one who patronises them.
Unfair? Surely Ken’s socialist credentials are impeccable, or as impeccable as any other old Oxonian lefty of the 60s. Unlike most of his peers, Loach stayed true to his calling, representing the emotional turmoil of ordinary working class lives in crisis; Cathy Come Home, Kes, Raining Stones all contemporary moral tales about homelessness, the education system and unemployment.
His historical films too have been so right-on, it’s hard or impossible for some on the left to criticise Loach. From Land & Freedom to The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Loach leaves no mystery as to his allegiances. The International Brigades and the IRA, South American guerrillas and downtrodden men and women preyed on exploitative employers or gangsters, Loach pits David v Goliath in every film he makes.
Ands what’s wrong with that?
Nothing except it’s all become a bit too self-congratulatory now. The vivid documentary style of his 60s films were a mix of French new wave and Italian neo-realism. His camerawork and editing made it feel as if we were watching real events taking place in real time. Steven Bocho would make a fortune from the same process during the 80s and 90s. By the same time as Hill Street Blues, Loach was still working in the same manner on Raining Stones but it had all become a bit too worthy by this time.
In fact Loach’s ‘style’ had become almost a self-parody of pseudo-authenticity. That familiar ‘gritty northern humour’ is as contrived and phoney as any number of soap operas or sit coms. Like many directors, Loach seems to believe that ‘northerners’ are utterly homogenous and that having scousers, Mancs, Tykes, Glaswegians and Geordies in the same film makes no difference to the audience.
Ah but which audience? Loach has tried to break free from his reputation as a humourless, hectoring director by producing ‘crowd pleasers’ such as Looking For Eric and The Angel’s Share. Pity poor Ken, winner of so many Palm D’Ors and still having the scrabble about for funding for his next straight to DVD stunner. Well maybe there’s a reason for that and the problem isn’t the subject matter but the scripts and the direction.
Since hooking up with Paul Laverty, Loach’s films have all followed a predictable path. My Name Is Joe set the template with its crudely drawn stereotypes of Glesga gangsters and alcys. Not that these people don’t exist but as believable human beings, Laverty’s evil drug dealers and headcases are all the same and they all get their comeuppance in the end, just like in real life.
The Angel’s Share in particular wasted some fine talent with its tedious rags to riches tale of misfits on the make. This was Loach By Numbers, utterly unconvincing and so lightweight, it floated away with the evaporated malt whisky of the title. This is Loach’s real crime. He likes to use untrained actors in starring roles to add authenticity and then provides them with scripts and plots so devoid of reality that they end up becoming caricatures. Not only that but the direction is so artless that they make Public Information Films look like Peter Greenaway. I don’t know what the French see in him because as a director he’s about as far away from Truffaut as Tarantino.
Still, Ken’s a good lad, he’s on the right side, he’s ‘one of us’ isn’t he? Maybe or maybe he’s just another 60s dilettante cracking on he’s down with the workers. Times have changed, politics and movie making have changed, there are new issues to tackle, new ways or representing ‘reality’ and injustice. If the best that Laverty and Loach can come up with is The Angel’s Share then maybe they need a lick up the arse not another Palm D’Or and the timid applause of people too frightened to offend Our Friend From The South.