The newest film of Ken Loach, his first since his Palm D’Or winner I, DANIEL BLAKE, returned the director to Cannes this year to premiere his new film SORRY WE MISSED YOU; another stark film demonstrating the dire straits of the working-class people of the UK.
SORRY WE MISSED YOU centres around a two-parent family with two children. Similarly to I, DANIEL BLAKE the film begins with dialogue from the main character, Ricky, in an interview, before we get our first look at him. He is being told the terms of his new role as a self-employed driver. He gets talked into buying a new van for the job rather than ‘hiring’ one from the company, but has to sell the family car in order to do so, which means his wife Abby cannot use it. Abby works as a home carer: she has to get to her client’s homes on her own and is only paid for the time she spends there, and only has an allotted amount of time with each before she needs to move on to the next.
The film is an obvious indictment of what has been called ‘the gig economy’: zero-hour contracts where the individual is registered as self-employed rather than employed by a company. In theory, being self-employed means greater control over hours worked, but it is exploited by companies so they do not have to cover essential costs, incurred by the individual, while they continue reaping the maximum profit. The ‘self-employed’ person has to abide by the franchise company’s strict work schedule in order to be paid their fee.
The film does its best to explain this complex issue at the beginning before, in typical Loach style, the problems for the family escalate. If Ricky doesn’t show up with his van in the morning he is fined £100 by the company for the day on top of the loss of income from not working. When Ricky tries to negotiate a day off, he is told he won’t be able to for months.
“What is striking about Ken Loach’s approach to social issues is that he doesn’t try to depict society as a whole as uncaring and dismissive of the plights of others.”
The lack of flexibility in Ricky and Abby’s professional life then takes a toll on their family; their oldest son Seb skips school and engages in petty vandalism in the form of graffiti. There is a threat from the school of a fine for Ricky and Abby because of their son’s absence, but they cannot physically be there for him due to the amount they work. This makes Seb ever more resentful as he feels his father cares more about work than he does. This tension flares into outright hostility between Ricky and Seb over the course of the film. Meanwhile, their ten-year-old daughter is having nightmares and trouble sleeping because of all the issues in the home.
What is striking about Ken Loach’s approach to social issues is that he doesn’t try to depict society as a whole as uncaring and dismissive of the plights of others. There are several scenes in both this film and in I, DANIEL BLAKE, where the characters have breakdowns in public, and members of the public respond to them with sympathy and understanding while simultaneously being unable to help them. Social issues are not the fault of individuals, Loach underlines, social issues are a side effect of economic issues, and economic issues come from the exploitative working conditions of a capitalist system that cares about profits more than people.
The escalating sense of desperation in the film culminates with Ricky been beaten and robbed for the parcels in his van, but as Ricky is up to his eyes in debt, he has no choice but to drive to work the next day, without even the knowledge of how badly he was hurt. It is a ludicrously heartless situation but also all too realistic.
While I, DANIEL BLAKE was an indictment of the benefits system and featured a protagonist who at least had the freedom to shout and rage at the government for the situation he was trapped in, Ricky can only take his anger out on his customers and, heartbreakingly, his family. The company that employs him may be represented by the stone-faced and stone-hearted Maloney, but behind him, the real villains of the piece are the anonymous shareholders of the untouchable company that rake in the profit over the broken bodies of the drivers. There is no catharsis in this film, there is only a sense of snubbed anger and injustice.