Ken Loach studied law at Oxford, and though he claims to have been an indifferent pupil, he went on to answer his calling as a public advocate through nearly 40 years of palpably angry filmmaking about the poor and dispossessed. His body of work, represented by BAM’s sampling of nine features, amounts to a class-action lawsuit against all manner of powers that be, from inept social-service agencies in the U.K. to oppressive Central American regimes.
Precisely because Loach is forever mounting an argument, however, he often ends up dramatizing not people so much as forensically detailed case studies of total system failures. And like a TV attorney, he constantly indulges a weakness for the bombastic closing argument. (It’s no coincidence that the actor-filmmaker Peter Mullan, who in My Name Is Joe created one of the few multidimensional figures in the Loach canon, has criticized his director’s melodramatic tendencies.) Film after film ends in a detonation of death, catastrophe, or despair—a self-parodic grenade always lies in wait.
Loach began at the BBC in the mid ’60s, honing his skills on the popular NYPD Blue prototype Z Cars and helming 10 installments of the Wednesday Play series, which provocatively mixed documentary and fiction to address contentious issues including homelessness, abortion, and mental illness. One of the Wednesday regulars, Carol White, also starred in Loach’s first theatrical release, Poor Cow (1967), a Donovan-scored, remarkably nonjudgmental portrait of a bored, sexually adventurous young mother. (White’s Bardot-on-the-dole falls for a charming young thief played by Terence Stamp; more than 30 years later, Steven Soderbergh nicked Stamp’s scenes for the flashback footage in The Limey.) In Family Life (1971), a close remake of a Wednesday Play, the monstrous parents of an unstable twentysomething conflate her nocturnal habits and indifference toward employment with insanity—you might say the girl is sacrificed over the edge of the generation gap.
In 1971, Loach and his wife were seriously injured in a car accident that killed her mother and the couple’s five-year-old son. When he returned to filmmaking, Loach found himself further beset by censorship and financing woes, and theaters saw his movies only sporadically for years. He got his second wind with Hidden Agenda (1990), an icy conspiracy thriller with Frances McDormand and Brian Cox, loosely based on cases of RUC atrocities in Northern Ireland. A crowd of movies rushed after this Cannes-approved breakthrough, often tapping a previously undiscovered vein of slapstick and wry wit, as in the working-stiff valentines Riff-Raff (1991) and Raining Stones (1993). Loach’s best film, in fact, is also his funniest: In the Glasgow-set My Name Is Joe (1998), Mullan plays a tough-skinned, softhearted recovering alcoholic juggling his roles as coach to a ragtag football squad, mentor to a troubled young father, and boyfriend of a wary family counselor.
But things fall apart, as they usually do: Joe collapses under a sudden maniacal regression and a gruesomely theatrical suicide; Riff-Raff literally flames out in a burst of Marxist metaphor and a grisly death to boot; the admittedly heart-wrenching Ladybird Ladybird (1995) is one long sustained wail of maternal torment. The all-too-frequent tragic outcomes of class barricading and social-service ineptitude that Loach tirelessly documents risk shrinking into cliché in his hands. As an activist filmmaker of grace and economy, Loach has few peers, but he’d stand alone if he didn’t sucker punch his audience over and over again—experienced viewers’ stomachs may begin to clench around the 90-minute mark, while their empathy dissolves in a flood of sorrow and pity.