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Sorry We Missed You: Ken Loach's polemic about the gig economy

 

SORRY WE MISSED YOU
directed by Ken Loach

A Geordie family bears the stamp of exploitation in Ken Loach’s latest social commentary, a companion to I, Daniel Blake.

Job interviews are never pleasant, but you really feel for striving father-of-two Ricky (Kris Hitchen) when he sits down, deferent and eager, in front of his new boss at the beginning of Sorry We Missed You. As if being inducted into a warped dystopia, he’s told that rather than being simply hired by this delivery company in Newcastle, he’ll be “onboarded” and henceforth known as a “franchisee” rather than a worker, reimbursed in “fees” instead of wages. Ricky is given a package scanner, eerily called a “gun”, and schooled in the necessity of hitting “targets”. But the gun is not his – he rents it – and there’ll be hell to pay if anything goes wrong.

This is the warped world of the “gig economy”, chosen by director Ken Loach and writing partner Paul Laverty for their latest polemic, in which language is bent to obscure vicious exploitation. Ricky has no employee rights, no union to which he can turn. But then, the world of precarity is not new to seasoned day labourers such as Ricky.

His wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), knows this, too. She works as a visiting carer for the elderly and disabled, overstretched and barely able to fulfil their basic needs, let alone provide empathy and attention. Under such conditions, even the most resolute family would unravel, and that is precisely what this one does: truant teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone) turns vandal, daughter Liza (Katie Proctor) tries to insert herself between exhausted, warring parents.

Sorry We Missed You is a close companion to Loach’s devastating I, Daniel Blake (2016), also set in Newcastle. We routinely attach the term “social realism” to films such as this, shorn as they are of affect and romanticism, yet, in a sense, Loach makes old-fashioned, socially conscious melodramas. Although steeped in deep research and indignation, they are didactic, piling tragedy upon heartbreak, heaving the cast towards ever more desperate situations. Viewers hankering for subtlety, let alone balance, will go unrewarded. But there is solace, dignity and good humour in small moments. One wrenching scene (similar in its power to the food-bank moment in I, Daniel Blake) sees Abbie quietly weeping as one of her patients brushes her hair. The carer cared for. Another sequence of filial bonding echoes all the way back to Loach’s pioneering Kes (1969) in its insistence on patience and love.

Then again, Loach’s sense of realism is not fiction masquerading as documentary. Rather, it’s a tool to heighten and underline the withering of his characters. Loach is by now such an expert portrayer of hard-scrabble communities that any whiff of manipulation sinks into the background. What remains is the grit of authenticity, and the rage of injustice.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★1/2

Video: Icon Films Australia and New Zealand

This article was first published in the January 4, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.