“I never thought it would be this hard”, says Rickie Turner to Abby his wife, holding her tight in a brief moment of intimacy before sleep overtakes them. Rickie is working fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. Abby is a zero hours carer, one of tens of thousands of casualised front line outsourcees in Britain’s creepingly privatised welfare state.
In an era of slick euphemism, Rickie is technically self employed. There was a time when wage labourers dreamed of self employment as a path to betterment; risky, yes, but full of promise. Now it’s likely to mean all the disadvantages of working for others – and none of the benefits.
Welcome to gig economy Britain where, as Rickie and Abby discover, flexibility is a decidedly one way street.
Rickie, a delivery driver in the age of online shopping, ‘owns’ his van. That’s an investment with adverse consequences for Abby. They could only raise the deposit on this £14k millstone by her selling the car which took her from one ‘client’ to the next. Now she buses it – environmentally better, of course, but that’s small consolation when you’re on the minimum wage and juggling the demands of making ends meet with those of raising two kids.
Abby is not paid for time spent, or expenses incurred, between ‘clients’. This is Britain today for its growing precariat. (I should know. Though my circumstances were vastly better than Abby’s, I too had a zero hours contract at Sheffield Hallam University. And I too would bus from class to class, the gaps a downtime to be minimised, if possible, by negotiation with managers often sympathetic and doing what they could to give me a degree of contiguity.)
One scene is especially illuminating. At a windswept bus stop on a bleak estate Abby conducts a futile cell phone argument with her manager. She’s gone over her allotted hour with a ‘client’, said ‘client’ having shat himself as Abby was about to leave. What was she to do?
What indeed? Abby does the right thing as a human being – and the wrong thing as a human labour unit. Her manager is sympathetic but powerless. She’ll be paid for the hour and nothing but the hour.
boss client representative is powerless. This is important because he is not only a little tyrant but fully aware of the fact. That’s useful, cinematically, in allowing the depot despot to set out his flawless reasoning as to why he is a heartless bastard. Ken Loach is too much the master craftsman to use easy targets. In refusing to demonise Rickie’s boss client rep he goes no small way to mitigating a weakness of social realism, its often clunkily empiricist approach to abstract and systemic forces. (For fuller discussion, see my review of Mike Leigh’s Peterloo.)
This is not a feel good film. With the partial exception of Looking For Eric, that’s not what Ken Loach does. Ever since Cathy Come Home in 1966, he’s been holding a mirror to all that’s ugly – and that’s a lot – in class rotten Britain. With Sorry We Missed You he excels again.
Will it change anything? I doubt it. But there’s a lot to be said for telling the truth, for striving after authenticity in a world bent on depicting, if not the very opposite, at best highly confined and weirdly selective samples of the stuff.
Most heartrending of all is the watching as good people go under – and let me say the acting, children’s included, is utterly convincing. Ditto the screenplay as each disaster is compounded by the previous one, and in turn compounds the next. You won’t be doing much laughing over the hundred and one minutes of your life given over to this piercing glimpse of Britain today.
But don’t even think of giving it a miss.