Following up I, Daniel Blake with another grim drama about English poverty, Ken Loach spits venom about the dark side of capitalism to mixed results.
This review is part of our coverage of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
“Have you ever been on the dole?” a local delivery plant boss (Ross Brewster) asks over a screen of black. “No, I’ve got my pride. I’d rather starve first,” replies Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen). When the lights come on, he’s just what his north England accent evokes: well built, red hair, and more than a few muscles on his triceps. He can also be a bit of a softy, but he can’t afford to do that nowadays. He lost his house in the recession, and now his own pursuit for work is costing his wife, Abby (Debbie Honeywood), the convenience of working as a caregiver.
Ricky gets paid to deliver nice things to strangers. Abby’s job is to take care of people that aren’t her family. And as for their gobsmackingly ungrateful son, Seb (Rhys Stone), and happy-go-lucky daughter, Liza (Katie Proctor), well… they just seem to get in the way of it all. A lot of Ken Loach’s latest has a sense of gallows humor about it. Maybe it’s the point of his career that’s driven him to such thorough absurdism in his storytelling or maybe it’s the times he’s depicting, but Sorry We Missed You is ripe with opportunity either way.
For a while, Sorry We Missed You is an empathetic look at working-class life, with enough flourishes to give it a sense of place. It’s nothing flashy, though; it seems as if Loach and Laverty only resort to corporate references when they see absolutely fit. The two, along with Ryan’s ethnographic eye, have made for a piece unstuck in time. It has its Amazon name drops and the all-knowing iPhone is as much a member of the family as anyone else, but these facets are never a focus. They’re a predisposition, something with an unspoken agency.
It’s riper with opportunity than its characters are, at least. Loach, who’s been making features since the ‘60s, still isn’t too hot on traditional notions of story, and that’s for the better. Robbie Ryan, regular DP for Andrea Arnold, continues to shoot with a soft fly-on-the-wall milieu. Screenwriter Paul Laverty, who wrote I, Daniel Blake and Jimmy’s Hall, hasn’t progressed much, and it seems his work has caught up to him.
Capitalism is evil, sure, but it’s much more nuanced in its ways than this.
All of these make Loach’s film so easy to crawl into for its first half. As this look at the life of the 99 percent morphs into more outright drama, it finds itself in a more topical arena: the incompatibility of family life and capitalism. Truth be told, this is more probing thematically than in execution. Hints abound to foreshadow the suburban father’s decay (we all knew it was coming), and watching paternal masculinity err towards irascibility is where Sorry We Missed You reaches its most nuanced. It’s a shame, then, that the film goes for misery porn instead.
It’s an easy path to take: the mounting debts, the family troubles, the Murphy’s Law of not being wealthy enough to live. Add in one of the most unbearable children in cinema since the kid from the first Purge movie, and Loach and Laverty undo Ricky’s life into a funhouse of misfortune. This may be the work of a patient filmmaker, but that doesn’t mean it’s above low-hanging fruit, doling hit after hit to Ricky to the point where viewers have little to do but play the sick game of “Just How Far Down the Hole Can This Guy Go?”
However, Hitchen sells his distress well with a pub-friendly charisma that folds in on itself later on. The same goes for Honeywood as her straddling pluck and stress. Stone, on the other hand, simply feels like he’s reciting lines, adding another layer of excess to the drama.
Sorry We Missed You has a lot of good stuff—the good stuff that doesn’t draw attention to itself. It also has more than a few missteps, and they all seem hell-bent on being as grueling as possible. Capitalism is evil, sure, but it’s much more nuanced in its ways than this.