Ken Loach, through his tenacity and consistency as an artist and storyteller, has become probably the best-known political filmmaker in the world. Yet this label has often created an image-problem for his work, and obscured its true evolution.
In interviews, and in his television documentaries, Loach still likes to bang on about Big Picture politics: class oppression, trade unions, corporate capitalism. His movies, however, have taken a slightly different path since the militant era that began with Poor Cow (1967) and ended with Raining Stones (1993).
The most noticeable difference in Loach's entourage these days is the presence of writer Paul Laverty. His contribution has been immensely beneficial. Carla's Song (1996) marked a new tone and focus for Loach. His stories (such as My Name is Joe, 1998) became more intimate, less fixed on providing schematic, holier-than-thou illustrations of social struggles. The problems of love and commitment, family and friendship, became more poignant and tragic.
Loach has lost none of his leftist politics. Only now, he refracts it differently through his work. Others who have been strongly influenced by him, such as Bertrand Tavernier (It All Starts Today, 1999), have taken up the task of identifying and embodying social structures in their dramas. In Loach's recent films, these structures are implicit, always looming in the background. What matters to him now is how individuals struggle with the burden of their upbringing.
For about its first thirty minutes, Sweet Sixteen seems to be wearily following the social-realism formula familiar from many previous Loach films. We see Liam (Martin Compston) and his mates engage in anarchic pranks on the streets on Greenock, near Glasgow. As in The Navigators (2001), there is a slow-witted boy who is the butt of everyone's rough humour. A rather uninspired music score by George Fenton provides needless dramatic underlining and an occasional infusion of rock rhythms.
But, slowly, a compelling story takes hold. Liam is deeply attached to his mother, Jean (Michelle Coulter), who is in jail, and fed up with her boyfriend, Stan (Gary McCormack), and father, Rab (Tommy McKee). Bravely, Liam resists these brutalising, male influences, while trying to establish a more hopeful future for Jean.
However, for Liam to get ahead of the game means involving himself with a local, criminal network. And this is when a new and more imprisoning process of dehumanisation begins, which will affect his closest friendships as well as the precarious bond with his sister, Chantelle (Annemarie Fulton).
Loach has become a master at balancing the utopian dreams of his characters – such as, here, Liam's plan to buy a new family home – against the apparent hopelessness of ever making a change to a world where ideology is not a matter of intellectual principle but deeply ingrained, instinctive behaviour. Even the lovely landscape of Greenock expresses this tearing contradiction.
Yet Loach manages to be neither a romantic nor a fatalist. What he shows is bleak, but his films are still odes to the resilient, human spirit. Filled with a remarkable authenticity, especially in the acting, Sweet Sixteen is another triumph for this great director.
MORE Loach: Ae Fond Kiss
© Adrian Martin March 2003