Cannes 2019

Cannes 2019, Day 4: The Brits are back, firing rockets and workers’ rights

Elton John brought a shot of star power with "Rocketman", but the kick in the gut came from two-time Palme d’Or-winner Ken Loach, whose heart-wrenching “Sorry We Missed You” makes him an early contender for a record third.

Joss Barratt | Kris Hitchen in Ken Loach's "Sorry We Missed You."

Heart-shaped spectacles, a tuxedo emblazoned with sequins spelling out “Rocketman”, and a cacophony of shrieks and hollers from the adoring crowd: The 72nd Cannes Film Festival had its biggest bash so far as Elton John showed up on the Croisette on Thursday in characteristically flamboyant attire for the gala premiere of Dexter Fletcher’s biopic, named after the British star’s 1972 hit.

It’s hard to think of a less flamboyant red carpet than the one that followed shortly thereafter, as another Briton – Cannes veteran Ken Loach – arrived for the screening of “Sorry We Missed You”, his latest work of cinematic activism and his 14th shot at the Palme d’Or, an award he has picked up twice already.

We’d been promised a very “political” Cannes, and the first batch of films in this year’s competition certainly lived up to expectations. We had a climate-change-induced zombie fest with Jim Jarmusch’s opener “The Dead Don’t Die” followed by Ladj Ly’s “Les Misérables”, an angry flic on police brutality in the French suburbs. Then came the eerie sci-fi western “Bacurau”, by Brazilian duo Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles, a grim premonition of a country pimped out to gun-toting Gringos. But none can muster quite the same anger and despair channelled by Loach with his latest feature. The veteran Briton picked up his second Palme d’Or when he was last at Cannes. “I, Daniel Blake” followed an ailing carpenter and a single mother slipping through the cracks in the UK’s crumbling welfare system. This time the drama involves a delivery man and a care worker trapped in the zero-hours gig economy, and it’s just as gut-wrenching.

Set in Newcastle, the story concerns Ricky (played by Kris Hitchen, terrific like much of the film's little-known cast), an energetic and diligent former construction worker who lost his job and his mortgage when the banks tumbled in 2008, and has since done just about every manual trade in town as a day labourer. Ricky has a tight-knit family of four who live in a cramped rental home but hardly ever see each other. His wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) is a carer, in every sense, who looks after the elderly and disabled on a zero-hours contract and hates having to call them “clients”. She works late in the evening to give them a “tuck-in” – so late she can’t tuck in her own children. Fortunately, their 11-year-old daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) helps with the household chores and tucks in her parents when they pass out exhausted on the sofa. But her older brother Seb (Rhys Stone) is getting into trouble at school and could do with a little more time from his mum and dad, who have none to spare.

Ricky sees an opening when he lands a kind of freelance gig at a parcel delivery depot run by scowling boss Maloney (Ross Brewster), who makes it sound great with talk of “being your own boss”, working “with” not “for”, and earning “fees” rather than wages. But the promise of independence conceals a new form of servitude, with none of the protection afforded by ordinary employment. Ricky is supposedly helped by a scanner, which sets his delivery itineraries and impossible targets. Alarmingly, it’s called a “gun”, and rightly so, because the scanner is a weapon turned against him, monitoring his every move and ensuring there’s no time even for the loo. “Are you taking the piss?” Ricky keeps asking, as he realises the extent of his enslavement. But it’s all dead serious, and dangerous, and a terrible toll on his kids and equally hard-working wife.

Carefully documented and superbly scripted by Loach’s long-time associate Paul Laverty, “Sorry We Missed You” is very similar to their previous Palme d’Or-winning work, though arguably even more pertinent and powerful. Both films feature a cathartic scene exposing the UK’s broken public service, this time in a crowded hospital emergency room where those in need of urgent attention wait patiently for absurdly long hours as only Britons can, until someone snaps. A heart-wrenching indictment of zero-hours Britain, “Sorry We Missed You” has a more universal quality too, addressing a mutation in neoliberal capitalism that is transforming lives across the world.

Loach’s latest feature firmly challenges the economic and societal mutations that are all too often portrayed, at best, as empowering revolutions, and at worst, as inevitable developments we just have to keep up with. Once again, he and Laverty have turned the everyday woes of ordinary people into epic dramas, and kept them suspenseful too, with clear shades of neorealism in the manner of Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” (though as in the Italian classic, the drama is pushed a little too far, when more restraint would perhaps have delivered an even greater punch).

“What happened to the 8-hour day?” asks one of Abby’s elderly patients in one of the film’s most striking scenes, incredulous at her carer’s 14-hour shifts, six days a week. The two have just been through pictures of soup kitchens set up to sustain the 1984 miners’ strike, vestiges of a bygone era of working-class solidarity that Abby has never known. One can question Loach’s nostalgic gaze, but his indictment of present trends is harrowing and compelling. In fact he’s becoming more insightful in every new film, as if the ever ghastlier state of affairs is driving him to produce, at 82, his finest work. More power to him.

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