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“You don’t get hired here,” states Maloney (Ross Brewster), the hard-nosed delivery-depot boss in Ken Loach’s searing examination of zero-hours Britain. “You come on board. We call it on-boarding. You don’t work for us – you work with us.” It’s a prime example of the doublespeak that underwrites today’s gig-economy culture, brilliantly captured by Paul Laverty’s justifiably embittered script. As sold to hard-grafting Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen), it’s an opportunity to become “the master of your own destiny” – a self-employed franchise-owner, freed from wage slavery (there are only “fees”) in a brave new world in which everything “is your choice”.
Yet despite Ricky’s determination to grab this opportunity and make it work for him and his family, he’s been sold a lie – all he’s really being freed from are basic workers’ rights. Before the drama is over, that hollow declaration of choice will come back to haunt Ricky, painfully revealed as nothing more than an enslaving illusion.
From the outset we know where this is going, as the costs immediately start piling up. First there’s the van, which requires a £1,000 deposit, raised by selling the car that Ricky’s wife, Abby (Debbie Honeywood), needs for her own work. She’s already overstretched – an agency care-worker in an uncaring world, shuttling endlessly between too-short appointments with the elderly and infirm, struggling to live up to her golden rule: “Treat them like your mam.” Then there are the costs of the job; the hundreds of pounds of fines incurred if Ricky doesn’t show up on time; the thousands he owes if he loses his parcels or his tracker, even when he gets robbed.
More profound is the cost to Ricky’s family life, as he and Abby find their every waking hour devoured by work, unable to spend much-needed time with the kids: teenage graffiti artist Seb (Rhys Stone) who is increasingly skipping school, to the exhausted anger of his father; and smart young daughter, Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), who sees her parents’ pain and desperately wants things to be “the way they were…”
Unfussily photographed by Robbie Ryan, this increasingly gruelling (and somewhat schematic) drama plays out under the slate-grey skies of Newcastle, the setting for Loach and Laverty’s superior I, Daniel Blake, to which this acts as a companion piece. It’s portrayed as an unforgiving urban sprawl, wherein hardworking people can get caught in a suffocating spiral of despair. Time and again, scenes of back-breaking struggle end with the screen fading to black, as if the film itself is simply too tired to go on or hanging its head in empathetic shame.
What a relief it is when a crack in the clouds allows a ray of sun to shine through, however briefly. A scene of the family sharing a takeaway curry (and Ricky misjudging a vindaloo) provokes giggling delight, both on and off screen. A moment of gentle hair-brushing is lent a note of heartbreaking sweetness by the sung strains of the old ballad Goodnight Irene. Most significantly, a day of father-daughter bonding recalls the outdoor wonder of Loach’s ground-breaking 1969 feature Kes. Yet the latter comes with a sting in its tail – a harsh reminder that no good deed goes unpunished in a world in which “everything is out of whack”.
“This decides who lives and who dies,” says Maloney (self-declared “patron saint of nasty bastards”) about the electronic scanner that records and dictates Ricky’s every movement as he races to meet deadlines – and gets attacked by dogs, insulted by customers or beaten up by muggers. “Making the box happy is everything.” And therein lies the awful truth – that Ricky, whose dreams of house ownership were crushed by the 2008 crash, is now answerable not to himself, but to a heartless, soulless machine.
As always with Loach and Laverty’s work, the devil is in the detail – those incidental elements that lend an unmistakable ring of truth to the wider drama, even as it moves inexorably towards melodrama. Whether it’s Ricky being given a bottle to piss in to save time on the road, or Abby dabbing camphor under her nostrils before entering a potentially pungent home, we believe in these characters and the situations in which they find themselves. Is it fair to want more light and shade from a film whose downward trajectory seems so defined by the darkness of the reality it depicts? As Ricky discovers, this road only leads one way and in today’s socioeconomic environment, there’s precious little evidence of light at the end of the tunnel.
Source: The Guardian
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