Director Ken Loach revolutionized British cinema with his highly naturalistic performances, a technique so realistic people assumed his films were improvised. A vocal proponent for various political causes, Loach’s early work openly criticized how ugly Margaret Thatcher’s Britain became and its oppression of the working man. Twilight Time’s recently released two of Loach’s films in a two-disc DVD set. Riff-Raff and Raining Stones are solid forays for the novice Loach fan, touching on themes Loach continued to perfect while at the same time bringing real people’s stories towards the forefront.
Riff-Raff (1991) tells the story of blue-collar construction worker, Stevie (Robert Carlyle) as he struggles to get by day-to-day. His girlfriend Susan (Emer McCourt) is a failed pop singer who refuses to believe success isn’t going to happen for her.
Riff-Raff was Robert Carlyle’s debut, which is a great reason to give the film a shot even if the movie isn’t the best in the set. You can certainly see Loach’s techniques on display; from the first minute we’re treated to languid arguments and discussions from Stevie’s co-workers, tasked with rebuilding a hospital into expensive housing units, about how difficult the world is today. The men complain about the government, about who voted for Margaret Thatcher; later on they discuss unionization and construction safety. This could lead audiences to believe Loach is narratively unfocused, but it sets up the situations of the time period and the location without coming off like blatant exposition. It’s a great way to learn about they type of people you’re dealing with (who can’t tell a lot about a person based on who they did or didn’t vote for?).
The emphasis on politics highlights Loach’s showcasing of how the country’s political situation works for or against the underdogs. Riff-Raff and Raining Stones both spotlight spirited characters brought low by societal circumstances. Stevie has a bit less to lose than Bruce Jones’ Bob of Stones, but with Stevie there’s little spirit to him. Robert Carlyle is bewitching in the role; a character who can be caustic, unsympathetic, and charming, but always genuine. He understands that good things don’t always happen to good people, and comes off as cynical by default.
Riff-Raff’s foundation is Stevie’s relationship with Susan. Emer McCourt plays Susan as a sweet but emotionally fragile thing. With the world around the men mired in brutal reality, Susan takes the idea to heart that success can happen to anyone so long as you work hard for it. Watching Susan’s struggles to become something everyone else is painfully aware she isn’t hurts more than what happens to Stevie. Loach plays on our preconceived hope for happy endings. While there are happy endings to be found, Loach underscores the fact they come at great personal cost and aren’t so much happy, but tolerable.
This comes off better in the film Loach directed two years later, 1993’s Raining Stones. The film follows Bob (Bruce Jones) as he struggles to come up with the funds to buy his daughter a new dress for her First Communion.
Loach possesses the ability to take a simple premise and show the struggle inherent in it; the most insignificant issues often give us the hardest time. The First Communion dress Bob’s daughter, Coleen (Gemma Phoenix) wants could be anything a person desires, as real and illusory as Susan’s dreams of fame. Bob’s various odd jobs provide an I Love Lucy level of shenanigans; the film opens with Bob and his dimwitted friend, Tommy (Ricky Tomlinson who also provides comic relief in Riff-Raff) wrestle with a sheep they plan on selling to a slaughterhouse. Later on, Bob gets a job as a bouncer and eventually is embroiled in borrowing from a shady character who expects repayment.
Loach plays with expectations once again. We expect Bob will be rewarded for his dogged determination to give his daughter one brand new thing, and yet he’s reminded constantly he’s letting his pride get in the way. The dress is a MacGuffin; it’s Bob’s pride that’s at risk of being hurt. When Bob’s family are threatened by the man he owes the money to – a harrowing scene with no emotion other than pure fear in it – it forces Bob down a dangerous path with his eternal soul left in the balance. By the end, as with Riff-Raff, a goal is achieved, but not with the same intention. Bob helps his daughter, but is forced to live with the guilt of his decisions for the rest of his life, a small price to a pay for a dress you only wear once. These people aren’t happy or successful, just comfortable at the moment.
“When you’re a worker, it’s raining stones seven days a week.” This line exemplifies both Riff-Raff and Raining Stones themes (although the quote is attributed to the latter film). Everyone has a story they wish to tell and Loach captures two. Stevie and Bob are characters unable to realize there’s too much working against them, or maybe they’re just unwilling to realize the dream of happiness is a sham. Either way, both films exhibit a piece of humanity considered too minute for a big-budget blockbuster. Loach’s films are thought-provoking, exploring a slice of life in all its murky, and often times plain, glory. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release of both films – with plans for future Loach features – gives audiences a good headstart discovering a director interested in the presumably mundane.
Trailer for Raining Stones
Trailer for Riff-Raff