5 Must-See Films Directed by Ken Loach
The prolific English director returns to Locarno with his 32nd feature film, I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes and is celebrating its Swiss premiere in the Piazza Grande. It is a venue that Ken Loach is familiar with: to date, three of his films have screened in Locarno’s open air cinema, with My Name Is Joe winning the audience award in 1998, and the director himself was on the Piazza stage in 2003, when he received a Pardo d’onore and was greeted by a record-breaking standing ovation. In honor of his triumphant comeback, here’s a selection of five films that are ideal to get acquainted with Loach’s cinematic world.
Based on Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel for a Knave, which almost became a Disney film (the deal-breaker was the author’s insistence that the ending couldn’t be changed), Loach’s breakout film is an early yet almost perfect sample of his two main strengths: a compassionate, humanist look at social issues, and a great rapport with his actors. In this specific case, the astonishing performance by young David Bradley, aged 14 when he was cast, remains affecting to this day. Amusingly, the film failed to find an audience in the United States due to the prominent use of Yorkshire dialects, with one studio executive reportedly telling Loach that a film in Hungarian would have been easier to understand.
Loach’s first of two collaborations – and arguably the best – with Scottish actor Robert Carlyle (who went on to play the psychotic Begbie in Trainspotting), Riff-Raff has been shown twice in Locarno: in 1991, out of competition, and again in 2008, as part of a carte blanche granted to Nanni Moretti, the subject of that year’s retrospective. An understandable choice, since the film deftly combines a realistic portrait of working class lives in London with a gentle sense of humor, courtesy mainly of Carlyle’s performance. A welcome return to familiar grounds after the controversial political thriller Hidden Agenda, which was notoriously denounced as IRA propaganda by film critic Alexander Walker.
Land and Freedom (1995)
Screened in the Piazza Grande after winning two awards in Cannes, Loach’s twelfth feature sees him expand his horizons beyond the confines of the British Isles, recounting the events of the Spanish Civil War from the point of view of an unemployed Liverpudlian (Ian Hart). An epic in the true sense of the word, complete with flashback-based narrative, Land and Freedom combines genre ambitions with Loach’s typical humanist observations, delivering a film that is both big and intimate.
My Name Is Joe (1998)
An unlikely crowd-pleaser on paper, Loach’s realistic yet affecting and occasionally humorous portrayal of alcoholism, embodied by Peter Mullan as the titular Joe, left Locarno with the audience award. A testament both to the skills of the director, whose exploration of working class life never loses its emotional power, and those of Mullan, whose performance as Joe won him the Best Actor prize in Cannes and remains, to this day, his finest acting achievement. Like Kes (and, a few years later, Sweet Sixteen), this film was a hard sell in America, this time because of the strong Scottish accents.
Looking for Eric (2009)
Another crowd-pleaser, although in this case it was to be expected. A lifelong football fan, Loach got to show his passion on screen with a comedy that is still profoundly grounded in the director’s thematic obsessions, while at the same time leaving room for some welcome surrealism via the main character’s interactions with none other than Éric Cantona, a rare example of a Frenchman capable of achieving national treasure status in the UK. The man himself, no stranger to acting, delivers an effortless, self-deprecating performance, with his infamous seagulls remark being the subject of one of the best gags. And then, of course, there’s that catchphrase: «I’m not a man. I am Cantona!»