When Ken Loach came back from the Cannes film festival three years ago with the event’s top prize, the Palme d’Or (for the second time), it seemed to be the perfect ending to a long career. He was now 80, but there was also a poetic symmetry to the acclaimed I, Daniel Blake – a scathing indictment of the UK’s merciless unemployment benefits system that captured the attention of the nation – and the compassion and defiance of the work he’d done for TV and cinema 50 years before. Loach first hit headlines with the BBC’s Wednesday Play Cathy Come Home in 1966, raising concerns about homelessness, and I, Daniel Blake was just as effective, drawing battle lines between political parties.
Loach could have left it there and retired happy. In the film world, only the Oscars have eluded him, and it seemed unlikely that he’d start to chase them now. Except that Loach wasn’t finished. Recanting his decision to quit the business (a choice made in desperation after he found himself “up to my knees in an Irish bog”), he got back into the saddle straight away. He returned to Newcastle, where I, Daniel Blake was filmed, and set about finding a cast of non-professionals for his latest project, a film, scripted once again by his regular collaborator, Paul Laverty, that would tackle such pressing issues as zero-hour contracts, modern consumerism and the gig economy.
Although its nominal focus is Ricky (Kris Hitchen), a former builder with a plan to take his family out of rented digs and into their own home, Sorry We Missed You is unusual for a Loach film in that its focus is much broader than previous work. In films such as Kes, Riff-Raff, Raining Stones, My Name Is Joe, Sweet Sixteen and right up to I, Daniel Blake, Loach likes to follow a character through his life story. Instead, Sorry We Missed You is the tale of a family and how life’s stresses reverberate through it, reminding us – via Ricky’s troubled children – that even school is hard work these days.
All this is far from Ricky’s mind as the story begins; he’s found work as a delivery driver and, faced with a choice of renting a van at an extortionate daily rate or buying one new, he goes for the latter option. His wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), a home carer who visits the elderly and disabled, is less than happy with Ricky’s decision but allows him to sell her car to fund the van, forcing her to rely on public transport to get to her clients, who are spread wide. For Ricky, it all seems too good to be true: a chance to be his own boss, keep his own hours and guide his own destiny, but soon he reads the small print, and the drawbacks become clear. Hidden fees, parking fines, penalties – before long, Ricky finds himself working more and more just to stay afloat.
As in I, Daniel Blake, this is a film about ordinary people trying to get on with their lives, but it’s also about us, the viewer, and the demands we make for the things we buy and the services we need instantly – but cheaply – in the world of Deliveroo, Amazon and Uber. Where I, Daniel Blake was a call to arms, Sorry We Missed You is a wake-up call, a reminder that “the gig economy” is a form of modern slavery, and its insidious grip is slowly but surely taking over our lives.