British filmmaker Ken Loach uses cinema to express his commitment to social issues like poverty, labour rights, homelessness and the working class, even war. In his latest film Sorry We Missed You – recently screened at Zawya cinema, having been part of the third El Gouna Film Festival and Zawya’s own Panorama of European Film – Loach takes on capitalism anew. His last film, I, Daniel Blake (2016), won the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival. He had won the same award ten years before for The Wind the Shakes the Barley (2006).
Widely known for social realism, Loach was born in 1936 and started his career as an actor in theatre companies, directing his earliest work for the BBC. For nearly 50 years he has made films, including such classics as The Angel’s Share (2012), Route Irish (2010), The Navigators (2001), Land of Freedom (1995), Riff-Raff (1991), Poor Cow (1967).
With an engrossing dialogue showing the strength of Paul Laverty’s screenplay, Loach’s new film – set in Newcastle – opens with a meeting between the middle-aged protagonist Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen) and Maloney (Ross Brewster), manager of the delivery storehouse in which Ricky hopes to find employment. Maloney firmly states that “you don’t get hired here, you come onboard, we like to call it onboarding. You don’t work for us, you work with us. You don’t drive for us, you perform services. There’s no employment contracts, there is no performance targets, you meet delivery standards. There’s no wages, but fees. No clock in, you become available.”
The words have a pleasant ring in Ricky’s ears as he has been desperately searching for a job so he can continue to support his family alongside his wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood), who have a teenage son, Seb (Sebastian, played by Rhys Stone) and an 11 year-old daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor). Abby is a care worker for the elderly working around the clock hurrying from one appointment to the other whether in the suburbs or in the city, with the little car she relies on being her only convenience.
But due to their huge debt and Ricky being forced to either use his own van or rent one from the company at an exorbitant rate, Abbey sells her car to pay a £1,000 deposit on a new van. Depriving him of workers’ rights, the gig market approach to employment gives Ricky a sense of freedom and responsibility that soon turns into a kind of enslavement, however. Soon he faces the fact thayt he is fined if he doesn’t show up or loses a package or his tracking device.
Abby is seen raising Liza by phone, as it were – setting time limits for computer use and giving her instructions on how to prepare her food – since she cannot be home, while Seb doesn’t respond to her calls. Meanwhile she is being treated worse and worse by the elderly people she cares for at her job, denied her overtime pay.
Though drained and depressed, both parents feel guilty about not spending time with their children. Seb is a graffiti artist with a penchant for violence, he misses school and eventually is suspended, leading to clashes with his father. Liza suffers from her parents’ absence. Nonetheless there are two warm scenes: a day Liza spends with Ricky as she accompanies him on his work journeys (something Maloney promptly “advises against”); and a family gathering over Indian takeaway (distributed by one of Abby’s patients).
Ricky had dreamt of buying a house before that became impossible with the financial crash of 2008, and now his dream is fading as he is repeatedly fined for missing work to help his son out of trouble, picking him up from the police station. But, traced by his tracking device, he suffers abuse from the customers and informed he will have to pay for what he lost when he got mugged while lying in hospital.
There is a Sorry We Missed You form in case Ricky doesn’t find the client home to receive the package, but it is the same piece of paper on which he writes a message for his wife when he sneaks out of the house to go to work in spite of his injuries: “Abby don’t be mad, I will be fine”. In the closing scene, led by Seb, the whole family gathers round the truck to stop Ricky from going to work, but he still manages to slip away in reverse gear, leaving them in shock on the street.
The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or, the British Independent Film Award and a number of other prizes at the Chicago and Hamburg film festivals. It and won the Audience Award at San Sebastián International Film Festival.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly