Film review: Sorry We Missed You

14 Nov
this post also features in offguardian

“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.

Even Rickie’s 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 klunkily 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.

*

8 Replies to “Film review: Sorry We Missed You

  1. I have frequently observed the harassed faces and listened to the complaints of delivery drivers regarding their working conditions laid down by ‘on line’ sales. Carers on zero hours contracts fare no better, their odd hours punctuated by ridiculously long car journeys between towns and villages. What a heartfelt comment by Ken Loach on the living conditions of so many young couples, trying to cope in today’s so called civilized society.

    Congratulations on your brilliant analysis of this film and your sympathetic deliberations. I totally agree with you.

    • Thanks, JT. Every age has its zeitgeist phrases. Two of ours are ‘race to the bottom’ and ‘the gig economy’.

    • Thanks Steve. I hadn’t read your review but have now. It’s excellent. I like the comparison of Loach with Corbyn. I’ve met neither but what you say rings true. Makes intuitive sense.

      As it happens a Sheffield mate emailed yesterday with this:

      “I’ve been out canvassing with Ken Loach in Rotherham today. Unassuming guy interested in how things are going on the doorstep and a big fan of JC – ‘If your talking to older people who always vote Labour but are not sure about JC remind them that he was one of the few Labour MPs who regularly stood on picket lines in the Steel and Miners strikes – he’s special!'”

  2. I apologise for the following. This entry kind of grew in the typing as well as rambling a bit.

    I work in the care sector in Scotland. I originally lived in the Central Belt but was forced to relocate because I could only get temporary contracts up there. I was fortunate to get a permanent contract in the South West. I have worked for over two decades in a day centre and I have seen relentless cutbacks over the years – as well as “courses” which were clearly aimed at introducing “marketing strategies” to “modernise” the service. Over and over I hear the mantra of “personalisation”, “enhancing independence” etc. all of which sounds wonderful until you put a disabled people into the picture and you realise that they need constant community support. I have also seen the intrusion of dubious “third sector” entities who are increasingly taking over traditional care roles. (I was also forced to re-apply for my own job recently so that I could have my job description changed to include more roles but, curiously enough, no more pay!)

    Meanwhile my wife has worked for a courier company in which she had to supply her own vehicle, her own petrol and work practically every waking hour. If she had to take time off, it was her responsibility to find a replacement. As a matter of curiosity, I logged on to a courier site to see how much they charged for a parcel. It was something like £6. But the couriers themselves get about 90p.

    She left that to join a care company described as “an employee-owned social enterprise”. Her job is to provide home care for the elderly. Again she is out for long hours. I rarely see her. Furthermore, one of the ladies who works beside her is in her 70s and can’t afford to retire. (i.e. we have old people caring for old people). The job is so understaffed that managers are forced to go out to try to cover.

    I’m sorry for banging away with this tale of woe but it shows that we are heading back to a Dickensian scenario which, in some ways, might even be worse than back then. I recently read a review of that old movie “Taxi Driver” (the one where De Niro goes crazy) and it mentioned that today – with this Uber Driver phenomenon – the drivers wouldn’t even get the chance to meet each other for a tea break as in the movie. So we now have Dickens without contact between workers.

    • No apology needed George. Now in the fortunate position of being retired on a modest but sufficient income – I have low overheads and simple tastes – I feel for you and your wife. And yours is a succinct, despatches-from-the-trenches account of that burgeoning phenomenon which is the distilled logic of capital unbridled.

      The USSR, for all its faults and painful limitations, offered a plausible alternative to “free market forces” now destroying everything sane people hold dear. Which fact obliged the West to go some ways down the road of ‘caring capitalism’. Its ruling classes could afford to travel that road on the back of exploiting the global south.

      But capital never incurs overheads purely because it can afford them. Since its iron laws of accumulation and ferocious competition cannot but drive that ‘race to the bottom’, the fall of the USSR inevitably paved the way for Reaganomics, Chicago School and the return to those Dickensian conditions – minus, as you say, that centralised proletariat at the heart of Marx’s stern optimism.

      (This centralised proletariat hasn’t left the planet, of course. As capital looks to the global south for super levels of labour exploitation, the workers who still gather en masse in mills and sweatshops are to be found in the business-friendly regimes of Bangladesh and the Far East.)

      I wish more people would heed E.M Forster, and Only Connect. I wish that those who rightly oppose the privatisation of every aspect of life in Britain would open their eyes a little wider to see that the cold war on the Soviet Union, and the hot ones on the Middle East, are all part of that same burning imperative for capital. To privatise the world.

      Again, no apology needed. On the contrary, thank you for sharing.

      • Thanks for your kind response. The problem with my generation – and indeed most of the generations lucky enough to be born in the West in those lucky decades after World War 2 – is that we came to think that we had reached the best of all possible worlds with a balance between capitalism and socialism – as we thought it was. All of our deeply ingrained presuppositions stem from that period (“communism is fine in theory”, “the middle course is best”, “capitalism is the best or least worst proposition”, “capitalism is the only system that conforms to human nature” etc.)

        I see now that those “lucky decades” were a product of a unique economic situation that can never happen again and which even at the time only applied to a minority of the global population. On the one hand, America – to which we are tied – was in a strong manufacturing position. On the other, there were very strong worker movements which had led to two successful revolutions so the ruling class felt that concessions had to be made.

        But even the welfare state – and its remnants now – have been hampered by that “neoliberal” ideology. Actually, I would say it’s just the capitalist ideology. (And I think we should always be aware of neologisms such as “neoliberal” which give the impression that we have something new and so distract from the underlying fact that we are living under CAPITALISM.) The basic presupposition is that society is “atomised”. My specific line of work is helping the disabled (my son is one of them so I see this from both sides). But under the “atomised” notion, even the disabled are seen as “rugged individual” who need to be “liberated” and given “freedom” and “independence” i.e. deprived of needed assistance. The “atomised” notion has everyone as a potential entrepreneur. (Every time I had to fill in an application form that asked “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?”, I felt like writing, “I see myself invading Poland!”) It is a war of all against all.

        It is now breaking down – although the folks around me still swallow the old capitalist clichés. I reckon they always will. But new generations are coming and they are going to find it increasingly easy to throw off the illusions. That is my hope.

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