Ken Loach: Championing the Strugglers and Stragglers

From the start, the British filmmaker Ken Loach came out swinging in support of the underdog. Long before his films opened in theaters, his 1960s television plays introduced uncomfortable topics like back-street abortion (“Up the Junction”) and homelessness (“Cathy Come Home”) to audiences who were not always appreciative of their documentarylike realness and divisive politics.

Since then, his dogged championing of society’s strugglers and stragglers has sometimes resulted in his films’ being misread or underappreciated by American audiences. (Even the British film critic David Thomson once judged Loach easier to respect than enjoy.) Inseparable from his time and place, Loach responded to the economic depression of postwar Britain — and what would become decades of Conservative rule — with an unrelenting focus on working-class solidarity. In a Loach movie, survival hinges not on individualism, but on community.

Film Forum’s wide-ranging retrospective (running through May 2), which generously samples Loach’s prolific output from 1967 to the present, offers an opportunity to marvel at the breadth and emotional heft of an audacious career. In the 1990s alone (invigorated, one guesses, by 11 years of Thatcherism), he tackled topics as diverse and contentious as Northern Ireland (“Hidden Agenda”), labor rights (“Riff-Raff”), unemployment (“Raining Stones”), domestic abuse (“Ladybird, Ladybird”) and addiction (“My Name is Joe”) with an uncompromising belief in the essential drama of ordinary lives.

Over time, his films have become less raw and more artful, more fluidly cinematic but with no less social relevance or political edge. (It’s notable, and shameful, that his 2019 indictment of worker exploitation, “Sorry We Missed You,” feels as justified today as it did more than three decades ago in “Riff-Raff.”) Injections of tough-minded humor have inoculated even his most tragic pictures from charges of miserabilism and opened them up to a wider audience. In “Raining Stones” (1993), for instance — about an unemployed father who takes dangerous steps to purchase his daughter’s first communion dress — a gently comic undertow eases the violence. You’ll be distressed, but you won’t be destroyed.

Kris Hitchen, left, with Katie Proctor in “Sorry We Missed You.”Credit…Zeitgeist Films

Nowhere, though, is humor more essential than in two of Loach’s most wrenching dramas. In “I, Daniel Blake” (2016) — whose release in Britain sparked a parliamentary discussion — an ailing widower (Dave Johns) is repeatedly rebuffed by an impenetrable welfare system. Despite the welcome distraction of Paul Laverty’s salty, spiky dialogue, some scenes (as when Daniel accompanies an impoverished single mother to a food bank) remain so gutting I like to think even Thatcher would have crumpled.

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