It’s only been three years since I, Daniel Blake but, if I’m honest, imagining a pre-Brexit Britain feels like imagining an alien planet – setting aside Ed Miliband’s likeness to an inhabitant of one. Yet, Ken Loach and Paul Laverty’s newest collaboration reminds us not to be distracted by the spectacle of Brexit. We are still facing many of the same problems that we were facing back in 2016, with many of the same causes.
Sorry We Missed You is a portrait of a family in crisis. Having moved to Newcastle after the foreclosure of their Manchester home during the 2008 crisis, the Turner family find themselves consumed by the pressures of precarious work and mounting debt. Patriarch Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen), recently laid-off, decides to work for a delivery company – one of the new ubiquities of Britain in 2019. As is the case for many in this sector, he must go into debt to purchase the van that he’ll be using and is to be considered ‘self-employed,’ thereby making him personally liable – through the payment of extortionate ‘fines’ to the owner of the company – for any missed days or missed deliveries.
His wife, Abbey Turner (Debbie Honeywood), is an at-home carer for the elderly and the disabled who although formally employed by the NHS, is actually employed as a private contractor and therefore, like her husband, has little recourse when it comes to negotiating absences. The strain of Abbey’s job, its long hours and frequent lack of breaks, is equal to her that of her husband and this arrangement – a reality for so many – ensures neglect for their moody adolescent Seb (Rhys Stone) and his younger sister, the resourceful Lisa Jane (Katie Proctor).
Having moved to Newcastle after the foreclosure of their Manchester home during the 2008 crisis, the Turner family find themselves consumed by the pressures of precarious work and mounting debt
Now, I’m always sceptical of films that shoot for ‘realism.’ Generally speaking, it’s usually a sort of cynical move, a sleight of hand that completes an illusion – like putting ‘Based on a True Story’ at the beginning of some cheap supernatural horror movie. And I won’t say that this film escapes all of these concerns but to its credit, like I, Daniel Blake, not only is it backed up by a considerable amount of journalistic research conducted by Laverty, but it also wears its heart on its sleeve. It does not shy away from the conclusions that it is drawing from our current political situation. Its realism is not a trick, but the entire point of its existence.
Indeed, it is one of the film’s defining achievements that it is able to create such an intimate and complicated picture of the Turner family. There is no resorting here to good-hearted patronising. These are people fully possessed of all the agency, thrift and emotion that much of our political press would seek to obscure with epithets like ‘irresponsible spenders’ or ‘poor decision-makers.’ It is a bold move on behalf of Loach and Laverty to include many scenes that – almost uncomfortably – renders these characters as full human beings, capable of deep self-sacrifice and creativity, yet also of malice and violence.
One such scene, around which much of the second half of the film revolves, depicts Ricky hitting his adolescent son. Now, we are never led to forgive or excuse Ricky’s behaviour – indeed, we are often led towards an indictment of his character – but we are asked to place it in context as well, to ask a question of some broader mechanism that might also be indicted.
This scene and its narrative importance touches on another of the film’s greatest achievements, perhaps its crowning achievement. Politically-charged films like Loach’s, especially one so concerned with an indictment of economic policy, often simplify their messages and narratives, opting for a sort of one-sided ‘valorisation of the downtrodden’ or merely embodying an admittedly important value like, say, diversity. Now, whilst this film might have better emulated I, Daniel Blake with regards to the latter value, as I have said, it certainly does not simplify itself for the sake of convenience. Thus, Loach and Laverty deal with the full matrix of pressures that beset the modern British family and, in this, its consideration of gender politics should be especially applauded.
Abbey’s commitment to the dignity of those she cares for is often genuinely moving, especially when she remains overworked and similarly burdened when she gets home
Like I, Daniel Blake, the female perspective is not ignored or obfuscated by Loach. Indeed, with regard to the issue of domestic abuse, the film is explicit in championing Abbey’s advice to her husband and her decision to be more gentle, caring and attentive to her son’s woes. It is her softer, more cooperative form of parenting that helps both her son and her husband to reconcile and the family to weather their disasters. Ricky’s almost suicidal desire to be the family’s protector and defender through his work often comes across as too reckless, although the film works hard to maintain our awareness of the near necessity that he must behave this way in order for the family to remain afloat.
Similarly, the film also stresses the importance of care-work, which is often performed by women and is overlooked by many commentators, in the maintenance of a just and safe society. Abbey’s commitment to the dignity of those she cares for is often genuinely moving, especially when she remains overworked and similarly burdened when she gets home. The film seems to share in Abbey’s commitment, bringing to dignified life all of the elderly and disabled who have been hit especially hard by cuts to public services and yet remain mostly invisible in the popular press and in election speeches.
Yet, ultimately, this is a despairing film. You will not get even the brief moments of triumph that Loach gave us in I, Daniel Blake. All that is afforded to us to soften the film’s impact come in the form of brief moments of familial tenderness, snatched from amid the turmoil and stress of their daily lives, or in Seb’s delinquent creativity that reminds us that graffiti is a genuine creative act, albeit a desperate one. In the final moments of the film, badly injured from the robbery of his van, in desperate need of rest and medical assistance – which the overburdened NHS hospital that he visits was unable to provide –, Ricky squints in the early morning sun from behind the wheel and it is as if Loach is asking: how much longer can we go on like this?