Sorry We Missed You is director Ken Loach’s follow-up to his excoriating I, Daniel Blake which exposed how the welfare system has been turned into an apparatus of punishment and cruel indignity for those without work. It took a film to expose the moral vacuum at the heart of the Department of Work and Pensions, because generally the mainstream news media are more interested in the fame and fortune of elite individuals.
Some topics stir outrage and existential angst such as our future relationship to the EU, but how this country treats people who have no work or who are too sick to work barely registers in the mainstream media. This is important because whose stories get told help shape our cultural and institutional empathy maps.
Sorry We Missed You grew organically out of the world I, Daniel Blake brings so harrowingly to conscious appreciation. If the latter is about the world of welfare, the former is about the world of work. ‘When we were going to the foodbanks for our research’ says Loach, ‘many of the people that were coming in were working on part time, zero-hours contracts. This is a new type of exploitation. The so-called gig economy…..and gradually the idea emerged that maybe there was another film that might be worth making.’
Sorry We Missed You certainly was worth making. The title of the film echoes Boots Riley’s 2018 film Sorry To Bother You, set in the telemarketing job sector. That was a surreal comedy and satire, very different in tone and style from Loach’s approach. Sorry We Missed You refers to the card left by parcel delivery services, a whole de-regulated market of casualised labour opened up after the Post Office’s 350 year monopoly was ended in 2006 (thanks, New Labour). But the title also refers more obliquely to the fact that the two main characters, Ricky and Abby, hardly see either each other or their own kids, as they toil away in the underpaid, overworked labour market that is the 21st century version of Victorian Britain.
Like I, Daniel Blake, Sorry We Missed You is set in Newcastle where we find Ricky (Kris Hitchen) – a construction worker originally from Manchester – being inducted into the entrepreneurial language and practices of the delivery driver sector, where large corporations like Amazon sub-contract work out to companies in a competitive race to the bottom. Ricky’s boss Maloney chats baloney – the language of choice, be your own boss, be a ‘warrior’ on the road, all the clichés of market discourse that pollute our contemporary language with nonsensical euphemisms and individualistic illusions and self-delusions. Immediately the economic pressures lock and load. Ricky can either rent a van from the company, for £65 a day and get fleeced that way, or buy a new van costing £400 a month plus a £1000 deposit. That means selling Abby’s car, leaving her to rely on public transport to do her home care visits for elderly peoplek.
In Sorry We Missed You, time has become more of a commodity than ever before. Abby (Debbie Honeywood) cannot spend the time she needs to provide the care her ‘clients’ need, while Ricky is tracked and surveilled to make sure he hits every delivery time. Meanwhile time with the kids is in scarce supply, and mediated through leaving messages on their mobiles.
The film is a study in how the economic pressures of capitalism gnaw away at the security and naturally affectionate bonds of the family. We see brief moments when the family has the opportunity to be together and enjoy each other’s company – but the strains are stronger than the ties. It has always amazed me that the Left allows the Tories to claim so easily that they are the Party of The Family. The reality is that they are the party that destroys real, concrete families.
Sorry We Missed You shows that when you are on the edge of things, it does not take much to push you over. In a society where supportive safety nets and social services have been stripped away, it becomes the norm for millions of people to live a life of JAMS – what Theresa May described as the ‘just about managing’ who in reality are clinging to the cliff face, with one hand.
When their son Seb (Rhys Stone) gets into trouble for fighting at school, Ricky cannot make the meeting because of work and Seb is duly suspended. A graffiti artist with a crew, Seb cannot afford the spray paints and gets arrested for shoplifting. A wedge between father and son opens up. Seb is a typical surly teenager, and does not buy Ricky’s belief that if you work hard enough there is a decent job and life available for you.
In other Ken Loach films with this sort of subject matter, and de-politicised characters living ordinary and non-rebellious lives, there is sometimes a secondary character who brings a political perspective and analysis to the main protagonist – and the audience. That is not the case with this film. Seb perhaps latently represents some revolt against the authorities as a graffiti artist, and Abby late in the film tells Maloney some home truths, but Ricky can see no way out of the status quo. The film ends with him driving, but metaphorically speaking, with nowhere to go except continuing on the downward spiral he’s been on throughout the film.
One of the problems with social realism is whether in showing, even in a nuanced way, the awful situation of precarity and social inequality, it engenders a sense of hopelessness and pessimism, and reproduces a deeply sedimented feeling that this is just the way things are. However, we can also credit audiences with the ability to make connections between the story they see on screen and the political context from which it emerges. As with I, Daniel Blake, this film will be widely seen outside the commercial theatre network, and will be screened by various parts of the labour movement. Many of these screenings will involve debates afterwards and that is where the connection between the singular story of Ricky, Abby and their kids and the broader social and political story can and will be made.
The Guardian recently had the wheeze of showing Sorry We Missed You to a range of right-wingers, to see what they thought of it. The MP Anna Soubry was among them. No doubt fortifying herself beforehand with a stiff drink at the House of Commons subsidised bar, Soubry declared afterwards that the film ‘didn’t have the bite and passion that I expected.’ Of course, one would not expect a policymaker who has been responsible for constructing the very economy the film exposes, to think much else.
Fortunately, an empathy bypass is not mandated for everyone else. Sorry We Missed You does precisely what it should be doing – putting the real stories of people’s lives up on the screen in a dramatic form that engages vividly and that traces through the consequences of the social forces impinging on them.
The media who should be doing this have instead been investing in neoliberal reality television programmes. Channel Four did not co-fund I, Daniel Blake because they thought they had ticked the box with Benefits Street! This film, as with all of Loach’s films, charts an alternative reality and an alternative history. We really will be sorry and miss Ken Loach if he decides this is indeed his last film.
Sorry We Missed You is released in cinemas on November 1st 2019. Like I, Daniel Blake, It will also be made available for hire to show at community centres, clubs etc.