Ken Loach, “Sorry We Missed You” (2019)
He may be well into his 80s but Ken Loach continues to make social realist film dramas that document those aspects of modern British society that oppress its most vulnerable segments: the poor, the weak and those who may be only a pay cheque or two away from grinding poverty and the tender mercies of an uncaring and inhumane State bureaucracy. In “Sorry We Missed You”, Loach turns his attention to the latest trends in employment in post-Blair neoliberal capitalist Britain, principally what is called “freelancing” or the so-called “gig economy” and zero-hours contracts. In Newcastle, the major city in the poorest region (the Northeast) in England, the Turners are a family of four who have struggled to make a life since 2008, when they lost their home and work as result of the Global Financial Crash that felled Northern Rock building society. The family has since had to rent a terrace home and Rick (Kris Hitchen) has tried to make do with a series of jobs in the building industry. He is encouraged to become a self-employed delivery driver at a parcel delivery courier company run by tough manager Maloney (Ross Brewster). For this, Rick needs a huge deposit on a new van which he gets by selling the car his wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) needs to provide home nursing to various elderly patients in her contract job.
The film follows the fortunes of the various Turner family members as the parents struggle with the long hours imposed by their respective jobs and the stress their work places on their relationship with each other and with their children Seb (Rhys Stone) and Liza Jane (Kate Proctor). Seeing no future in continuing school studies and dismayed at the prospect of going to university with no promise of a job at the end and only a hefty student debt to show for the work, Seb cuts school to spend days with a graffiti crew. This gets him in trouble with his parents, the school and the police, and places extra stress on the parents. Liza Jane is traumatised by the fights at home and tries to intervene at one point by stealing Dad’s van keys. One incident after another lands Rick into deep shit with Maloney. Despite Abby and the children’s realisation that Rick’s job is sinking all of them into a hole of ever-burgeoning debt and the stress this will cause, Rick is still determined to keep on working for his company – even to the point of dying for it.
Based on actual interviews with gig-economy delivery drivers and care workers, the film packs in so much to make its point that its plot does appear very contrived and manipulative. The daughter’s ruse of stealing the keys seems out of character for the child. Most characters are played by non-professional actors and sometimes these actors seem a little awkward, particularly at the beginning of the film. They do warm towards their characters and as the film progresses they produce some stunning virtuoso performances – in this respect, Honeywood and Stone are outstanding. Hitchen and Proctor put in good work as well but they are stymied by the nature of their characters.
While the film does deliver a very hard-hitting message about the effects of new temporary working arrangements in new industries such as delivering goods ordered via the Internet and home-based health care on the people who provide these services and on their families in a society where trade unions were smashed in the 1980s by the Thatcher Conservative government and political parties of all stripes have been captured by neoliberal capitalism, the film also captures the alienation and anguish of people caught in a never-ending cosmic hamster-wheel, in which everything they do to improve their lives only makes it worse, and what is promised to them as “freedom” and “independence” is only slavery and oppression in a new guise. In the end, all that the Turners really have, in a neo-Dickensian world fragmenting and falling apart around them, is one another. Abby does derive a little consolation from the people who depend on her to care for them – but at the same time, Abby and her patients are also exploited by her invisible employer who treats her just as badly as Rick’s company does him. What society exists around the Turners is just as bleak: the over-worked and under-funded NHS comes in for quite a hammering and a well-meaning police officer can only utter the same old platitudes that countless past generations of rebellious teenagers like Seb have heard over and over.
Unfortunately the bare-bones docudrama framework of the film delivers an open-ended conclusion in which viewers can only imagine the Turners on a continual downward spiral that must end in tragedy for one of them. There is no suggestion in the film that Rick and his fellow delivery drivers come to a joint realisation that they are being exploited and that they should band together, even use their employer’s scanners, apps and other technology, to form a union to resist further exploitation. In the same year Loach was making his film, thousands of Uber and Lyft gig-economy drivers around the world were on strike for better pay and working conditions, and similar industrial agitation was developing among other gig-economy workers in other industries.
For a film depicting a such a bleak society, with all the social and economic burdens the society has had to bear for the past 40 years, it seems odd that Loach depicts the Turners and others like them as passive and helpless, at the mercy of predatory companies and the governments they curry favour with, and the technology that is supposed to help them but instead chains them into slavery.