By Susana Bessa.
We could never say it had been the worst week of her life. Because to see it as the worst is to be hopeful on its recovery. It is to say she will, sooner or later, have a better day. And with it, all that weight taken off of her. The ability to shut phones off, to wake up with no shrilling alarm, to know the freedom of filling in the hours by listening to the silence that roams the house without having a various number of intertwined circumstances weaponising it. She is willing to believe it, I told myself as I read her body, the multitudes of her facial expressions on screen, scene after scene. Or is she?
In Ken Loach’s most recent film, Sorry We Missed You, a man who had gone from painting houses to building them, stringed by temporary jobs, seeks financial independence. He feels he has worked too much for too long only to watch his life and that of his family stagnate, riddled with debt. He wants to be his own boss. That’s how we meet Ricky Turner, the man that could very well have been a component in Loach’s previous heart-wrenching Newcastle tale, “I, Daniel Blake”, a film that situated humiliation and pride as markers of domination and the enabling of people with disabilities, physical and otherwise, thus giving themselves permission to be enslaved without an end in sight. Loach returns, this time delving deep into an illness that is highly visible and yet so shameful and uncomfortable to face those enraptured in it retain its invisible discourse, keeping it close to their chests. A cancer that goes by the name of gig economy.
Turner is deluded by a notion of freedom that, considering how the workforce has changed, allies itself to work portability, to a schedule of his own making. So, he blindly accepts when the responsible for the parcel delivery franchise company explains the terms of his zero hours contract to him. Well, not a contract. The providing of a “service”, of which he supposedly has full autonomy of. As the beefy raunchy man puts it: “You won’t be working for us. You will work with us.” And so, it begins. The precarious trap of one’s own making. He is to drive a van delivering parcels minutely calculated by customers. But he’s in debt and renting a van is not an option. So, he must put in a 1000 pounds fee he certainly doesn’t have for one. And he must pay his own diesel, parking and congestion charges. He goes off to work every day, more exhausted each time, with the franchised company’s defining acronyms stamped on his work attire. His son gets arrested for shoplifting, his wife is unreachable, but he cannot leave in the middle of a shift. If he does, he loses money. He can’t stop. He can’t afford to eat or pee because he can’t afford himself to stop. There aren’t enough hours in the day to be an “independent” worker.
Meanwhile, his wife, a strong sweet calm-tempered woman, spends her off-hours in bus stops, going from destination to destination, providing care to the old, sick and lonesome alone in their homes, unable to cope with their bodies’ failure to comply, thus giving themselves away to the most natural of human impulses, to wither and die. She had a car before her husband urged her to find money for the van that would give them the peace of mind that comes with paying off debts, perhaps even the possibility to stretch out the pocket money, be able to save for rainiest days, and finally get that mortgage they had lost and ditch the rentals. Unlike her husband, whose encounters with others throughout his long days are fairly antagonistic and odious, her moral compass unables her to just let go. Even though the entity she works for capitalises human need to the brink of addressing the people she cares for everyday as “clients”, people with whom she mustn’t be too friendly with nor become too accustomed to. Her world does not stop. She cares for people. That is all she does. Her two children, left with the burden to see their parents as people, struggle, eager to communicate, incapable of finding their own way of looking at the world, the one-dimensionality their lives have vicariously become. And she does not know what to do.
The film’s mid-length scenes might prove otherwise, but it is beyond hard to sink into one’s chair as this daily contemporary apocalypse is deployed. The family’s sorrowful grind is seen through Loach’s eyes into ours, as the portrait of many is increasingly understood as what is being left at the periphery of everyone’s sight, even of those who see it. Especially of those who see it, especially of those who know of it because they have experienced it. As always, Loach never does get away from his socialistic political statement. Much like the Dardenne brothers’ social plight in Belgium, the characters are the fictional segment in a documental piece of filmmaking. He “speaks for” those in need, straddled in numbness, their agency and freedom of speech more and more anaemic overtime. But he also “speaks to” all of those who, in their own precariousness, have forgotten what is understood as ‘human’ and ‘human work’, by promoting empathy. And as this nearness is enclosed, a domino of disasters and linked consequences begin feeding into the unbearable rhythm the film pulses to and from. An accelerated beating heart. Its existence shaping itself into the apocryphal language of realism, the film’s silence posing as understanding. Much in the same way as Abbie keeps walking, moving from place to place, her husband keeps driving with only two minutes to spare between routes, ensuring functionality with none of the release. No catharsis is to be found. There is only more pollution leading the way. That said, at some point in the film, one of Abbie’s patients requests to comb her hair, an activity that if nothing more speaks for an arresting desire to provide comfort. When Abbie finally accepts, she allows herself to softly weep, sitting down vertically against the sofa where her patient sits holding a brush, her knees flexed hitting her chin, arms holding her legs, static electricity wiring the brush’s strokes simultaneously unclasping the chains that keeps her in check. An arresting scene, possibly the one not to forget, given how it conveys a side note on the internal ghostliness, the brutal reality of social displacement that is at the film’s heart.
Gradually, as it turns itself on its head, displaying a window into impossibility, the film’s ruthlessness no only is vocal about the dehumanisation of this couple’s helplessness in their work lives and the destruction of their health in carrying on, but also delves into the report of a capitalist system that chooses not to define work as an activity, by removing the act of suffering from it. As a definition, suffering comes from feeling pain, striking paths with disillusion. It used to be witnessed in the origin of screams, of violent cries. It is now silenced. Moreover, words like cruelty or abuse have long been divorcing themselves of their meaning when referring to labour. The commodification of the world’s hard workers, sliding into holes, ones deeper than others, as the world turns and tilts with more amplitude each time, suggests the polarisation of work’s hardships between unemployment or artificial days. Almost like farm animals, scissored away from themselves, confined to the standardisation of their existence, raised to produce more for less, confined to as little space as possible, permanently eaten away by others, who have normalised the activity.“How do you get away with this?” echoed by Abbie’s enraged voice, her husband’s “boss” on the other end of the phone call, had kept ringing in my ears since its delivery. Later on, as I tried to cough my way into removing the lump in my throat, the film’s last notes hanged in the air like death, too absolute not to perforate. As an answer to the question, I am reminded of Ricky’s initial pride in his strength as an employer, never on social welfare, thus permanently bowing down to nonexistence. No ending in sight. No love enough capable of undoing the ownership those whose cards haven’t been dealt will continue to endure. Which is the same as saying, live an enslaved and sick life, but live.
Many will say Loach has only stretched out his concerns, but there is nothing quite as urgent as this. The film gives us access to the Sisyphean truth of our days, as mucky as swamp water.
Susana Bessa is a writer and a press officer working in the film industry. Since completing an MA in Film and Screen Studies at Goldsmiths College with a dissertation that sees cinema as the definition for the social concept of ‘saudade’, her research themes include memory, archive, saudade, post-colonialism and time. She also studies the intersection between social media, film criticism and emotional capitalism, about which she has presented papers in international conferences. She’s written for The Rumpus, Photogénie, Mubi Notebook, among other publications. She’s currently based in Lisbon.