Three Films by Ken Loach (Riff-Raff/Raining Stones/Ladybird Ladybird) Review
For Ken Loach, the 1980s were a lean time to be a filmmaker. His 1981 film Looks and Smiles had premiered on television (ITV on a weekday evening at 9pm, despite being Loach's only cinema feature in black and white) the following year, after festival showings but before its limited cinema release. By then, Channel 4 had been launched and was funding cinema features, one of which was Loach's Fatherland (released in the USA as Singing the Blues in Red), set in Germany with much of its dialogue in that language. It sank without trace and remains one of Loach's least-seen films. Otherwise in the decade, he made films for television, fiction and documentary both. He made non-fiction more and more as drama became more expensive and the politically engaged work he was known for harder to finance. The documentaries he made weren't without controversy though: Questions of Leadership, a series on relations between trade union leaders and their members, was not broadcast for reasons of lack of balance and possible libel of specific leaders. The programmes remain untransmitted to this day. At times, Loach made commercials. It was, he says, either that or leave the business.
A turning point came in 1990. Hidden Agenda was originally to be made at Columbia Pictures during David Puttnam's short-lived tenure as studio head, and when Puttnam left Loach found funding with Hemdale. A Irish-set political thriller written by Jim Allen (who had collaborated with Loach several times before, as far back as the 1969 BBC Wednesday Play The Big Flame and whom Loach credits with the leftward shift in his politics at the time), it attracted controversy for its political viewpoint. It also won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, France being a country which has supported Loach more fully over the years than the one he was born in.
Riff-Raff (1991, 95:59)
Stevie (Robert Carlyle), a Glaswegian just released from prison, is living rough in London when he gets a job on a building site converting a derelict hospital into a luxury apartment block. With his new workmates he moves into a squat, and meets Susan (Emer McCourt), moved from Ireland to London and aiming to establish herself as a singer and actress.
Riff-Raff was a small-scale film, shot in 16mm and intended for Channel 4. Its intended small-screen home would explain the 4:3 aspect ratio, then still the format for television but unable to be shown properly in most cinemas. However, it won the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes and did go on to a British cinema release, albeit a very limited one – initially just a week's run at the National Film Theatre in London, now the BFI Southbank. It also began Loach's creative relationships with particular long-term collaborators. All three films in this set were produced by Sally Hibbin, whose mother, Morning Star critic Nina Hibbin, had campaigned for the Rank Organisation to release Loach's Kes. Sally Hibbin was Loach's regular producer until 1996's Carla's Song, after which his films were produced by Rebecca O'Brien, who had been a co-producer on Hidden Agenda. All three were production designed by Martin Johnson and edited by Jonathan Morris, both of whom have been regular Loach collaborators, the former until his death in 2003, the latter to this day. The cinematographer for all of these films was Barry Ackroyd, who has also worked frequently with Loach – and more recently Kathryn Bigelow, on The Hurt Locker (for which he was Oscar-nominated) and this year's Detroit. All three films have different screenwriters: Paul Laverty became Loach's regular writer on Carla's Song. These longstanding creative relationships are likely one reason why the period from 1990 to now is Loach's most prolific for films made for the cinema.
The screenplay of Riff-Raff was written by Bill Jesse, a real-life construction worker. He died at the age of forty-eight, before the film was completed: it is dedicated to him. Riff-Raff belongs to the genre of films and plays which paints a portrait of men (often men) in a particular environment, whether they play sport together, or are connected in some other way – in this case, they work together, on a construction site. You can't doubt the authenticity of the men's banter (often very funny), given that Jesse worked in places like this, and Loach films it in his customary naturalistic manner, with pitch-perfect performances from the cast. One of them, Ricky Tomlinson, in only his second feature film, had worked as a plasterer in his time. He has the film's comedy highlight, when he takes a bath in one of the flats, not realising that some prospective buyers are being shown round. Although this is an ensemble piece, plot threads do emerge, particularly involving Stevie and his relationship with Susan.
As funny as it is, the film's underlying seriousness is evident from the outset. These men are being exploited by their bosses, who can hire and fire at will, and are often neglectful of safety standards, and the resulting apartments will be way beyond their reach.
Raining Stones (1993, 90:38)
Greater Manchester. Bob (Bruce Jones) is married to Anne (Julie Brown) and they have a young daughter, Coleen (Gemma Phoenix). Bob has set his heart on buying Coleen a dress for her First Communion, but money is tight...
Raining Stones, written by Jim Allen, won the Jury Prize at Cannes and went on to a cinema release rather wider than the one Riff-Raff had had. Set and filmed in the Langley Estate, Middleton, it's again a story of a family struggling to make ends meet at the bottom of the social scale. Bob tries many things to earn the money he needs for Coleen's dress, some of these activities on the wrong side of the law, and he is soon in over his head. However, while its seriousness is always evident, Allen and Loach sugar the bitter pill with a lot of comedy in the earlier stages, such as an opening sequence where Bob and his mate Tommy (Ricky Tomlinson) go in for not-entirely successful sheep rustling. In another sequence, Bob goes house to house with a set of drain rods offering to clear people's drains (with varying reactions, all improvised by the cast). The final one is with the local priest, Father Barry (Tom Hickey), with distinctly messy and smelly results. However, this episode sets up a key scene later on. But, two thirds of the way through, the laughs end as load shark Tansey (Jonathan James) calls round to collect Bob's debt, when he's not in and Anne and Coleen at home – one of the most harrowing scenes Loach has ever filmed. There are no laughs from that point on, but the film ends on an optimistic note and something of a miracle, in this overtly Catholic-themed film. Raining Stones ranks amongst Loach's best films.
Ladybird Ladybird (1994, 102:03)
Maggie Conlan (Crissy Rock) has four children by four different fathers, and a potentially-fatal accident when the children were left alone results in them being taken from her and put into care. Angry and resentful, with only her sister Mairead (Sandie Lavelle) for company, she meets Paraguayan migrant and political refugee Jorge (Vladimir Vega) and they start a relationship. Maggie falls pregnant, and faces the opposition of social workers and the authorities...
Many of Loach's films for the large screen and small have centred on women – not least the one that first established his reputation, Cathy Come Home. However, the only ones written by women are Up the Junction, for TV (Loach did not direct the later film version) and his cinema debut Poor Cow, both written or cowritten by Nell Dunn, on whose novel the latter is based...and this one, written by Rona Munro. A new collaborative project is announced on the IMDB, and she also wrote the script for Loach's son Jim's directing debut Oranges and Sunshine. Her television work includes stories for both the original and the new series of Doctor Who.
Ladybird Ladybird is based on a true story, though as the end credits advise, all names have been changed for legal reasons. It centres on a woman who would at the time and would still likely find herself demonised by certain parts of the UK media. This isn't a sentimental film in the slightest, and Maggie isn't written or played for easy sympathy. She's clearly a damaged woman, often given to fighting back, and in flashbacks we get to see why. As a little girl she witnessed her mother being beaten by the father (who, later in the film, she reveals sexually abused Maggie as well) and this is a pattern that recurs when she receives a violent beating from Simon (Ray Winstone). These two scenes are gut-wrenching to watch and because of them and because of what the BBFC refers to as the “very strong language” in them, Ladybird Ladybird received Loach's first 18 certificate in the UK, a distinction it shares with 2002's Sweet Sixteen and the uncut version of 2012's The Angels' Share, in both cases for multiple uses of the C-word. (Poor Cow had a X certificate on its cinema release, but that at the time restricted it to sixteens and over, and it now carries a 15.) While it would be easy to discount Maggie, and many would do, over the course of the film she earns our and the film's respect, and the love between her and Jorge, while often tested, is genuine and genuinely touching.
Loach is known for his use of non-professional and non-star actors in his films. Ray Winstone is no doubt the biggest name in the cast, and he's quite terrifying in his few scenes. Crissy Rock, on the other hand, was a stand-up comedian before she was cast in this, her acting debut. She gives a very committed performance which won her Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival, with the film taking the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. Vladimir Vega was Chilean rather than Paraguayan, but that certainly qualified him to co-write and act in Loach's segment of the post-9/11 portmanteau film 11'09”01 September 11, which dealt with the overthrow of Allende's government in his home country which was also on 11 September, in 1973.
The BFI's release of Three Films by Ken Loach is a three-disc box set, released separately in Blu-ray and DVD. The Blu-ray edition, which is the one received for review, includes a booklet, described below. The box's 18 certificate is, as mentioned above, is for Ladybird Ladybird, with the other two films rated 15.
Riff-Raff is in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1, with Raining Stones and Ladybird Ladybird in 1.66:1. The latter's transfer is from a new restoration at 2K restoration from the original 16mm negative. Riff-Raff was also shot in 16mm, so inevitably these two films are grainier and softer and a little less detailed than Raining Stones, which originated in 35mm. All three do look as much as they should do, with Ackroyd's cinematography, shot in natural light or certainly looking as if it was, showing up well. Certainly no complaints here.
The soundtracks for all three films are rendered in LPCM 2.0, which plays as the intended mono for Riff-Raff and surround for the other two, which were released in cinemas with (analogue) Dolby Stereo soundtracks. You wouldn't expect showy sound design in a Loach film, and you don't get it. The surround channel on Raining Stones and Ladybird Ladybird favours the music scores by, respectively, Stewart Copeland (who also scored Riff-Raff) and George Fenton. Other than that, the surrounds are mostly used for ambience, with the dialogue and most of the sound effects coming from the centre speaker. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing and those likely to struggle with some strong regional accents – though none of these films is as hard on non-local ears as Sweet Sixteen, which has been broadcast on British television with English subtitles.
Each disc features the theatrical trailer for the film concerned (2:20, 2:07, 2:15 respectively). The one for Riff-Raff is in the same 4:3 ratio as the feature but the picture appears to be cropped on all four sides. Also on each disc is a HD stills gallery, navigable via your remote.
On the Riff-Raff disc is the 1992 Guardian Lecture (73:22) at what was then the National Film Theatre, now the BFI Southbank, in London. Loach is interviewed on stage by Derek Malcolm. The same interview is also on Masters of Cinema's Blu-ray of Kes (which on that disc misses out a copyright screen at the start, which is present here) and also on Signal One's Blu-ray of Hidden Agenda (which I don't have to hand). The event also included extracts from some of Loach's films (one of them Kes, as Malcolm mentions at the start) but these have edited out, for evident licensing reasons. If nothing else, this shows that very little has changed in cinema exhibition in a quarter century. Malcolm bemoans the fact that cinemas are dominated by Hollywood product, and alternatives such as Loach's films struggle to find space there. Malcolm is driven to swear at one point and suggests a quota system for showing British and other non-Hollywood films – something that has not happened in the years since. Around the halfway point, Malcolm opens the interview up to questions from the audience. Although I didn't ask a question, I attended this event and you can see me at 53:40.
On the Raining Stones disc is another documentary, Carry On Ken (48:54). a 2006 profile of Loach made for Channel 4 by Toby Reisz. Loach is interviewed, and says that he eschews a “film by” credit as he regards filmmaking as a collaborative art. (You suspect he wouldn't approve of the title of this box set.) Many collaborators are also interviewed, beginning with Ricky Tomlinson who tells of how even passers-by at Cannes treat Loach like a star. Not without honour save in his own country, indeed. There is discussion of Loach's filmmaking, and his preference for observing and shaping unobtrusively, often with long lenses, an aesthetic in which he was influenced by the Czechoslovak New Wave films of the 1960s. This Eastern European influence goes both ways: Krzysztof Kieślowski's quote that the only thing which would have tempted him out of retirement would have been to serve as a tea boy on a Loach film is given another airing.
Finally, on the Ladybird Ladybird disc is Face to Face (40:07), from the BBC's revival of the famous 1959-1962 interview series, with Jeremy Isaacs as the interviewer or rather interrogator. This edition with Loach in the hot seat dates from 1992. With Isaacs's probing questions Loach opens up and the result is quite revealing, though he does shut down questions about his second son, who died in a road accident at the age of six.
The BFI's booklet runs to thirty-two pages and is mainly devoted to an essay by David Archibald, “Revolution, My Arse”. Archibald discusses the three films which were made at a time when a Conservative government had been in power for over a decade, much of that time under Margaret Thatcher, and there seemed to be, in her words, “no alternative”. In these films, a leftist filmmaker like Loach could only see life for his characters as one of day-to-day survival in the face of an antithetical government and employers. Also in the booklet are contemporary reviews (of the first two films by Derek Malcolm in The Guardian and of Ladybird Ladybird by Philip French in The Observer), credits for all the features and for the extras, transfer notes and stills.