My Verdict | ★★★★★
In the UK today we should be inundated with social realist drama depicting the current state-of-the-nation. Yet, we are sorely lacking. Ken Loach has picked up the slack again, this time skewering the ‘gig economy’. Three years on from I, Daniel Blake, the eighty-year old director delivers another urgent corrective to one of the prevailing political ‘narratives’ in austerity Britain: that you can work your way out of poverty. As ever, Loach pulls no punches in Sorry We Missed You. It’s a bleak but deeply moving depiction of debilitating precariousness- a state which is often the new normal for many of those now labelled ‘self-employed’.
Ricky (Kris Hitchen) and Abby (Debbie Honeywood) are a couple separately entering these ‘self-employed’ and ‘zero-hour’ contracts. While given every justification why this type of work is to their benefit, both are struggling to hold each other and their family together. Pressure builds; fines follow cruelly. As Ricky struggles against an unrelenting demand dictated from his quota machine, Abby darts from one patient to the next without enough hours in the day to provide the care they need. When disaffected teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone) goes AWOL and bright, hopeful daughter Lisa (Katie Proctor) can’t reach her exhausted parents, the family slide towards breaking point.
In his characteristic minimalist style, Loach hems us in with the family- whether in the tight, sparsely decorated living room or Ricky’s van. Spaces are made intense with humour, kindness or distress. But everything soon becomes a tight rope – a precarious, ever erosive balancing-act. You find yourself feeling deeply and rooting outwardly for this family, becoming ever angrier at the system that is reducing them of their time, energy and dignity.
The enemy might be a little too unambiguously pronounced in Ross Brewster’s self-enobled ‘Bastard-of-Britain’ foreman, but even he’s just an unthinking, self-interested, arse-covering face of a more nebulous system. He’s under his own stresses that lead him to disregard his subordinates with infuriating ease and unfazed arrogance. It’s a pressure-cooker economy; you must swim or sink in the boiling water.
Not that these are easy people or simple victims for Loach to parade manipulatively before the camera. Hitchen and Honeywood are a gift for the director as they craft un-elaborate, hard-hitting and empathetic performances. Hitchen is often volatile, prone to exhausted fury, yet we clearly see the deep love for his wife and family- how and why he endures humiliation and personal suffering. The physical and psychological toll of ‘being-your-own-boss’ is made all too obvious in his permanently knitted brow, slowly deteriorating gaze and growing injuries. He’s constantly shattered- making it ever more difficult to watch as the situation grows drastically worse.
Honeywood brings a quiet, intense compassion in Abby. Not only going beyond the call of duty for her clients, she remains able to ‘see’ her children, husband and the increasingly fraught dynamics between. It’s her resolve that holds them all together. When pushed to meltdown, we truly feel the righteous power in her finally outraged outburst: ‘Don’t ever fuck with my family, no-one fucks with my family’- too right! Stone and Proctor are fantastic as their ever challenging but ever-loving children. Stone, especially, butts heads convincingly with Hitchens- though moments of reprieve and solidarity between these two are heart-breaking. Brief and hard-earned family-time over a takeaway curry or helping on one of Ricky’s deliveries provide the fragments of warmth and togetherness that are then too easily snatched away.
Loach and Laverty’s rather sweeping focus of austerity Britain in I, Daniel Blake (attempting to tackle everything from food banks to the bedroom tax) is reined in here. The focus on the mounting problems of insecure labour practices are given more thorough dramatisation and exploration. Laverty’s script drills down into the often unseen lives of those who are upholding the increasingly atomised society that we live in- the veins of which are ruled by exploitative giants like Amazon. The film chips away at the much-hailed victory of UK governments over the fall in employment figures. While leaders from David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Theresa May and, now, Boris Johnson lavish praise on this political feat (sleight of hand, more like), Loach and Laverty present the darker reality. The existence of those on ‘zero-hour’ and ‘self-employed’ contracts are often desperate, degraded and unsustainable. It’s not a route out of poverty but rather an in-work poverty-trap.
Loach has his finger firmly on the pulse of this crisis. Sorry We Missed You is unnervingly timely- with the slow degradation of workers’ rights and precarity of labour only to increase under five more years of Conservative government. The director demands we look at those having their pride and dignity stripped away- the lives chewed up and spat out by the ‘gig economy‘. There is a price that is paid if we continue to placate or ignore this fact. For this, Sorry We Missed You is unmissable.