“The duty of a film director is to focus more on the soul of the spectator.”—Ken Loach
One of Britain’s finest directors, Ken Loach, has had a whirlwind career but has always done his best to centre on one aspect of society—the forgotten. However, the real forgotten people and not the outsiders or the outliers, the humble middling majority, it is the working-class.
“I turned down the OBE because its not a club you want to join when you look at the villains who’ve got it. It’s all the things I think are despicable: patronage, deferring to the monarchy and the name of the British Empire, which is a monument of exploitation and conquest,” Loach once said, offering a clear indicator his priorities.
His style of socially critical directing has seen the filmmaker become one of the most important directors in Britain and has seen the creator become a household name. Having been a part of the business since Up The Junction, Loach has carved out a particular niche. “Shaping it is something I would expect to do together with a writer, because that’s a director’s job,” he explained.
Loach added: “A film is one small voice among other large ones. The film is a tiny part of the discourse. You do what you can but under no illusions of what a film can do.”
Below, we celebrate the director by selecting 10 of his finest films and creating a much-watch list for anyone interested in the history of British cinema and Britain as a whole.
Ken Loach’s 10 best films:
10 – Family Life (1971)
A remake of an episode of BBC’s Wednesday Play saw Loach and David Mercer bring In Two Minds to life as Family Life. The film also gave Loach an opportunity to display the thing he most keenly associated with—familial connections and how they can both enhance and burden a person.
It also offered that most desirable of cinematic tropes, the hidden secret. Worth a watch if only for Loach’s command of the family.
Official Film Synopsis: “Janice, a 19-year-old girl living in 1970s Britain, is not getting along with her old-fashioned parents. When she gets pregnant, her mother and father pressure her into getting an abortion. Emotionally shut out by her parents and unable to keep a job, Janice becomes suicidal and has a nervous breakdown. Her parents have her committed to a mental hospital, where she suffers devastating side effects from intense shock therapy.”
9 – Sorry We Missed You (2019)
Loach takes on a comfortable position for Sorry We Missed You, accurately demonstrating the value and vitality in the lives of working-class people. The film follows the trials and tribulations of a family trying to buy their home, which today at least, feels about as accessible story as one might imagine.
Loach approaches the film with tenderness and careful touch he always has but keeps the picture pacier than usual. It’s a fine piece of work that shows Loach’s tone never goes out of style.
Official Film Synopsis: “Ricky and his family have been fighting an uphill struggle against debt since the 2008 financial crash. An opportunity to wrestle back some independence appears with a shiny new van and the chance to run a franchise as a self-employed delivery driver. It’s hard work, and his wife’s job as a carer is no easier. The family unit is strong but when both are pulled in different directions everything comes to breaking point.”
8 – Black Jack (1979)
This is an often-forgotten gem from Loach’s back catalogue and sees the director at his most accessible. It’s essentially a very sweet tale that has the opportunity to be tragic at every moment. It’s enough to keep you in suspense for the entirety of the film.
Black Jack is also worth revisiting if only for the great acting. At no point while watching the film will the idea that this is anything but a period piece come to you. There’s no moments where it feels like a modern retrospective, which is truly no mean feat.
Official Film Synopsis: “A French sailor escapes hanging and teams up with young Stephen Hirst and, late Louise Coope a young girl committed by her parents for her eccentric behaviour.”
7 – Land and Freedom (1995)
During the late 1930s, as civil war broke out in Spain, the country saw a wealth of foreign nationals flock to the country to join either side of the fighting, it’s a scenario which is perfectly captured in Loach’s Land and Freedom.
It’s a wonderfully intense film with a realistic and insightful look at the Spanish Civil War with an incredible array of highly naturalistic cinematography and stunning performances. A cracker.
Official Film Synopsis: “David Carr, a committed member of the Communist Party in his native Liverpool, England, travels to Spain in 1936 with the intention of joining the anti-fascist International Brigades in the country’s civil war. Instead, he falls in with the POUM, a Marxist splinter group opposed to Stalin’s oppressive totalitarianism. Despite falling in love with the politically passionate Blanca, Carr finds the leftist infighting a distraction from the greater struggle.”
6 – My Name Is Joe (1998)
There’s a realism that underpins everything Ken Loach does and quite possibly one of the most real dangers we face in our lives is succumbing to substance abuse. In My Names Is Joe, Loach approaches the subject with humility and the understanding that anyone could be befallen by addiction.
The film also recognises the arbitrary nature of life and that, for many, addiction and notably alcohol abuse is not only a way of life but they only life they want. Naturally tender and utterly captivating.
Official Film Synopsis: “Joe is an unemployed recovering alcoholic and Sarah works as a community health worker. The two thirty somethings meet in a rough Glasgow neighbourhood and become romantically involved with each other.”
5 – Poor Cow (1967)
Loach takes a swipe at swinging London and shows the darker side of what was then a still very much industrialised city, far removed from the front covers of magazines that had put London at the top of its destinations.
During Poor Cow Loach takes aim at the glitterati of such scenes and highlights the dark moments all complete with his standardised ’60s delivery including a lot of loose plot points, cameo characters and other pieces of flotsam that showed not all was what it seemed in the 1960s.
Official Film Synopsis: “When her mentally and physically abusive husband, Tom, is sent to jail, single mum Joy is left on her own to take care of their son, Johnny. After experiencing failed relationships, Joy must decide if she will stay with Tom for the sake of Johnny.”
4 – The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)
A remarkable film from Loach which outlines the tragic moment in Irish history as the war for Independence gathers pace and leaves the two brothers at the centre of The Wind That Shakes The Barley facing off against one another.
Cillian Murphy’s performance is astounding but the real winner is the storyline which not only is accurate in its depiction but offers an emotional view of a troubling moment in Irish and British history.
Official Film Synopsis: “Set during the Irish War of Independence in the early 1920s. Damien, an Irish medical student, is about to leave Ireland to complete his training in London, but before doing so witnesses atrocious brutalities carried out by the Black and Tans which leads him to join his brother Teddy in the Irish Republican Army. Soon however, the peace treaty is signed, and the brothers are pitted against each other.”
3 – Riff-Raff (1991)
With Robert Carlyle in the ensemble, chances are that you’re in for a treat and back in 1991 on Riff-Raff, Carlyle is on top form, providing an acting masterclass. Luckily, to aid him in his efforts, is the equally amazing performance from Emer McCourt.
It once against puts Loach in the corner of the working class this time highlighting not only the dangerous jobs they do for a living but the fact that very often these are the only jobs available. Another touching and tender piece of cinema.
Official Film Synopsis: “An ex-convict (Robert Carlyle) from Glasgow becomes a construction worker in London and falls for a drifter (Emer McCourt) from Belfast.”
2 – I, Daniel Blake (2016)
The film that re-introduced Ken Loach to the world, I, Daniel Blake saw the director once again in his familiar position of speaking up for the little guy. The gritty realism of this drama, mark it out as particularly Loachian and it’s underwritten by the standout performance of Dave Johns as Daniel Blake.
A harrowing recount of the kind of pitfalls that await people struggling in modern Britain this film should be not only on the curriculum of school kids across the country but a mandatory watch for any public servant around.
Official Film Synopsis: “Daniel Blake is a 59-year-old widowed carpenter who must rely on welfare after a recent heart attack leaves him unable to work. Despite his doctor’s diagnosis, British authorities deny Blake’s benefits and tell him to return to his job. As Daniel navigates his way through an agonising appeal process, he begins to develop a strong bond with a destitute, single mother (Hayley Squires) who’s struggling to take care of her two children.”
1 – Kes (1969)
It’s a tale as old as time and one that Loach tells particularly well. The tale of disaffected youth left behind by his school, bullied by his teachers, and forgotten by the members of his family. Through a series of painstakingly stark shots of northern Britain, Loach creates an uncompromising world which only lifts when Billy finds his kestrel.
One aspect of Loach’s work has always been that characters rarely escape their fate. The same can certainly be said of Kes. Get the tissues ready, it’s a sad one.
Official Film Synopsis: “Ken Loach’s acclaimed British drama focuses on Billy Casper, a tormented working-class boy who is subjected to abuse both at school and at home. The son of a single mother, Billy’s existence is mostly bleak until he takes up an interest in falconry and begins training a kestrel that he finds on a nearby farm. While Billy forms a close bond with the falcon, his hardscrabble life and harsh environment prove to be a challenge to the boy and his bird.”