Following his 2016 Palme d’Or triumph with I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach returns to the Cannes Film Festival with Sorry We Missed You, a furious denunciation of zero-hours Britain. We begin in a familiar place: in the dark. A man with a Mancunian accent is being interviewed for a job.
The man proudly gives his work experience; expresses his contempt of the dole; promises to be a hard worker. But Ricky (Kris Hitchen) isn’t actually applying for a job, the bullet-headed boss reveals. As a delivery van driver, he’ll be a self-employed franchisee, collecting fees rather than wages and with no rights and subject to fines if things go wrong.
The risks are already apparent and in order to get started and buy his own van he persuades his wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) to sell her car, even though she needs it to go house to house for her work as a carer. But taken by talk of quick money to be made, Ricky throws his hand in and is soon delivering mobile phones and Amazon parcels across town. Regular Loach screenwriter Paul Laverty keeps it light at first as Ricky argues with a Newcastle United fan and almost gets bit by a dog, the perennial foe of the postman.
But the long hours begin to take their toll and at home, Ricky’s son Seb (Rhys Stone) is in trouble with school while his daughter Lisa Jane (Katie Proctor) is neglected. (“There’s some pasta in the fridge” is a constant refrain.) Wrapped up in his own schedule and problems, Ricky has little clue as to how he’s worsened Abbie’s working conditions. The film isn’t so blithely dismissive and we see how similar contracts are creating an inhuman “care” industry in which vulnerable people are “clients” and the work isn’t properly recognised or paid for. Nevertheless, Abbie does a conscientious job and treats her charges with dignity as she shuttles between them on buses trying to look after her family via mobile phone.
Laverty and Loach have created another hard-hitting, powerful film, spiked with humour and moments of rare but profound humanity. Sometimes this comes from surprising places. A police officer gives Seb a heartfelt pep in one scene. And although the villain of the piece, depot boss Gavin – a self-confessed “nasty prick” – is played by Ross Brewster as both comic and delusional. The cast is generally excellent and the scenes of Seb and Ricky arguing as the family falls apart are particularly effective. Honeywood is the heart of the film, the Mama Roma whose kindness and generosity is endless but who is repaid by the obvious love she receives from her “clients”. A Cannes award would not be a surprise.
Of course, this could be all viewed as an Amazon delivery Bicycle Thieves but it sits almost in dialogue with I, Daniel Blake. The working-class has been left at the mercy of feral capitalism without the protection of communities or unions. Families struggle to survive, both psychologically and physically, and society is largely indifferent, callused over with a sink or swim men from the boy’s survivalist ideology. Loach’s fury remains unabated and his humanity empathetic and profound. Yes, there are lectures and no, there’s not much subtlety, but the world is not a subtle place and sometimes we need a screed.
The 72nd Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty