On Thursday night I was fortunate to be able to attend a Q&A session with director Ken Loach at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, which immediately followed a screening of his new film, The Angels’ Share. The film itself is a thoroughly enjoyable and occasionally gripping mixture of inner-city drama and whimsical heist caper about Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a young Glaswegian lad who narrowly avoids a prison sentence and becomes a father within the film’s first five minutes. Thanks to his social worker he discovers he has a keen whisky palate, and it’s a talent he puts to profitable use when the opportunity arises to steal an extremely rare cask of whisky, which is due to go up for auction in the next few days.
Loach seems quite at home (if that’s the right phrase) with the grim reality of living in a crime- and drug-ridden neighbourhood, and the difficulty anyone faces in trying to escape that world. The film doesn’t shy away from this: Robbie’s encounter with the victim of one of his violent outbursts is powerful stuff, making it clear the sort of person he is. But unusually for the director, the film takes a more upbeat path than expected, getting the audience on Robbie’s side and willing him to succeed in his elaborate scam, even though he’s breaking the law once again. Despite its comedy credentials – and it is very funny at times – Loach still views the film as a tragedy, even if this one did get away, as he puts it.
I admit here and now that I’ve not seen many of Loach’s film – something I intend to put right as soon as possible. But I am of course aware of who he is and how much his impressive body of work is valued both here in Britain and abroad. The Loach ‘brand’ (a phrase I am sure he would shudder at) is famous for stories and characters that are often variously described as ‘gritty’ and ‘social realist’ in nature – two phrases he declared he would like to see buried forever. His political views are worn very much on his film’s sleeves; they are not diatribes, but by focussing on those parts of society that are too often neglected or marginalised, it is clear they have an underlying message.
Loach was a fascinating speaker, and I count myself very luck to have heard him talk. For such a brave and forthright filmmaker, he is rather quiet and considered in person. His comments on the changes he’s seen during the course of his long career, in terms of both politics and cinema, were always interesting; whether it was lamenting the degree of micro-management that occurs in film production today, or the failure of politicians to tackle the rise in youth unemployment, which he sees as the cause of so many problems in society. The fact that politicians no longer campaign for full employment as they did in the 1960s seems to particularly disappoint him.
To have directors working in this country today who have seen nearly half a century of political and social change, and who still want to shine a light on people and communities who deserve a chance to turn their lives around, is a fact that should be celebrated. Loach brings with him a wealth of experience and intelligence which guarantees any new film of his will be worth a look, and you will almost certainly feel better for having seen it. We should treasure him for wanting to carry on shining a light through his films; let’s just hope he doesn’t have to put up with too much micro-management.