For three years Brexit has been a giant hoover sucking in every dust mite of political energy. But what about the reality of people’s lives – nine years of spending cuts, foodbanks, squalid housing, and decades of regional inequality? With his latest drama Ken Loach forces one of the major issues facing modern Britain, zero-hours contracts, to the top of the agenda. You can read articles about workers in the gig economy pulling 14-hour days six days a week, no holiday pay, no sick leave.
But Sorry We Missed You has the power of film – the power of a Ken Loach film – to put you in the shoes of that person working those 14 hours. It’s unpatronising, made with the decency and care for ordinary people that runs through Loach’s work. But it’s an angry film – you can practically feel heat radiating from the cinema screen.
It’s a companion to Loach’s I Daniel, Blake, another snapshot of austerity Britain. Sorry We Missed You is also set in Newcastle where Ricky (Kris Hitchen) is a grafter who’s worked in the building trade most of his life. “I’d rather starve than be on the dole” he says in an interview for a job as a delivery driver. Except it’s not a job. Ricky is a self-employed “driver-owner franchisee” – master of his own destiny, supposedly.
That’s a lie. The company decides when and for how long he works. Ricky is on the road from 7am, no time to eat or even stop for a piss (drivers carry empty mineral water bottles for that), no holiday unless the boss okays it – he doesn’t. Kris is a slave to his handheld scanner beeping non-stop; he has to make his delivery slots or be “sanctioned” – the company’s fancy speak for fining drivers. Too sick to work? Find someone to cover the shift or pay a £200 sanction.
Loach keeps his camera close to Ricky. I couldn’t look away. Is he going to make it up six flights of stairs in 43 seconds before the scanner beeps? Will the miserable bloke who answers the door in his dressing gown sign for his neighbour’s Amazon delivery? Sorry We Missed You doubled my heart rate.
Loach is fiercer, more uncompromising, than ever
Ricky’s wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) is also in the gig economy, a carer who works 7.30am to 9pm making home visits to the elderly and disabled, cooking them scrambled eggs, bathing them or putting them to bed – “tuck-ins” the company calls it. She has 15 minutes per client and doesn’t get paid for her travel time. The couple have two teenage kids, Liza (Katie Proctor) and stroppy Seb (Rhys Stone). Ricky and Abby are working every waking hour, phoning in their parenting – pasta’s in the fridge, 20 minutes-only screen time.
What happens to a family when there is no time for family life? Loach and his regular scriptwriter Paul Laverty have researched hundreds of real families like Kris and Abby’s and the authenticity in the scenes at home is heartwrenching. I think another director, another writer, would have fudged the ending – Ricky and Abby are so nice, they love each other. They deserve to be happy. But everything is stacked against them.
Recently, people have been describing Ken Loach as a national treasure. I don’t think is right. It suggests someone mellowing with age. But Loach is fiercer, more uncompromising, than ever. I’d go with national conscience.