For 50-plus years, British filmmaker Ken Loach has been a crusading white knight for the working class. His heroes are laborers, carpenters, union organizers, social workers, immigrant house cleaners, pub-dwelling punters, football-fanatic postmen. Kids, whether it’s the falconry-obsessed lad of Kes (1969) or the drug-dealing teen of Sweet Sixteen (2002), are usually fighting the effects or suffering the after-effects of economic inequity. Even his historical dramas set during the Irish War for Independence (The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Jimmy’s Hall) and the Spanish Civil War (Land and Freedom) tend to be empathetic more to the everymen caught up in the conflicts. Go back to Cathy Come Home, the infamous 1966 teleplay that shook up British TV with a depiction of an average family sliding into homelessness, and you can see the template for so many of Loach’s kitchen-sink dramas and character studies: social issues, rigged systems, documentary-style realism, narratives with little mercy yet loads of sympathy.
The 83-year-old director’s latest, Sorry We Missed You, may or may not be his last — but the way it calls back to Cathy and echoes the same concerns would make it an eerily appropriate bookend to his career. We ride shotgun with another family, the Turners, who are constantly on the edge of falling into hard times and falling apart at the seams. Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) is an in-house caretaker for the elderly and the infirm, doing everything from cooking their meals to tucking them in to bed. Sebastian (Rhys Stone) is 16-year-old aspiring street artist who goes by “Seb” and runs with a crew. Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), his little sister, is sweet, sensitive and the resident ray of sunshine.
And the paterfamilias, Ricky (Kris Hitchen)? He’s a Mancunian builder who never really recovered from the 2008 recession. But things are looking up. He’s just been hired by a package delivery firm. Or rather, he’s been added on as an “owner-driver franchisee.” He can rent a van from the company, though financially, it’s cheaper to simply buy one upfront. Either way, he’s got to pay the insurance. A small, black, expensive device — like a smartphone, only larger — checks in his deliveries. It also tracks his whereabouts and beeps if he’s out of his van for more than two minutes. (“This decides who lives and who dies,” the bullet-headed manager says in regards to the gadget. The declaration is only slightly metaphorical.) The threat of insanely strict sanctions looms over everything. Ricky’s got daily numbers to make, or else. He’s got to deliver time-sensitive packages known as “precisors” within a specific deadline, or else. He’s got to work 16-hour shifts, six days a week, or else.
Partly a gig-economy procedural, Sorry We Missed You pays close attention to the rhythms of how these types of jobs work. The pace is unrelenting (we watch Ricky sprint to doorsteps in order to beat the clock) and the quotas unreasonable. Drivers keep piss bottles so they don’t have to stop to relieve themselves, and lunch breaks are a luxury. The foreman keeps everyone on edge, pitting workers against each other so his overall performance goals are met. The be-your-own-boss lexicon sounds empowering — “You don’t work for us, you work with us” — and places the burden of paying for necessary expenses and recouping losses on the “independent” employee. While Abbie’s job is equally as taxing, she at least has a real connection with many of the housebound clients under her care. Ricky’s interactions with the customers he delivers parcels run from fleeting to hostile. The whole situation feels unsustainable at best and inhumane at worst.
Loach and longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty are only partially invested in the ins and out of these types of set-ups, however. Their real interest lies in the toll these “flexible” gigs take on the people doing them, and like the duo’s award-winning I, Daniel Blake (2016), any indictment of bigger-picture practices is really more of means to a humanistic end. (Which does not stop Loach and Laverty from loading their characters up with dialogue that sometimes feels directly lifted from lectures and pamphlets; as with several of their past collaborations, the movie’s didactic detours come close to being dealbreakers.) We get several early scenes of the Turners talking and eating and laughing with each other; Liza Jane even accompanies her dad on his route one day. But Ricky and Abbie are rarely home, and exhausted when they are there. Seb is bottoming out at school and snapping at his parents. When Ricky has to take off during a shift to pick up his son after shit goes down, he’s severely fined. Short fuses burn down to the nub, and in one hard-to-watch scene, hands get raised. There is no time for the family to be a family. Everybody begins to crack under the pressure.
These are the quiet lives of desperation slowly being strangled by late capitalism, and Loach and Laverty have no illusions that a movie, even one filled with such acute observations and poignant asides, will solve the problem. But it can shed light on such things, and ask viewers: What can we do? What can be done? To watch Sorry We Missed You is to realize that, despite its dedication to showing how people live and love and work (and work, and work, and work) in everyday Britain, this is a story that goes far beyond the United Kingdom. It ends on a sequence that’s as heartbreaking as it moving, and one that would read as hopeless were its creators not so devoted to maintaining the dignity of the people onscreen. But make no mistake: The movie’s title, taken from the slip used to denote an attempted delivery, takes on a much more caustic, bitter resonance long before the credits roll.