Ken Loach: 50 Years of Socialist Cinema

By Eugene Smith 

The Sixties: Kes (1969)

Widely regarded as Loach’s breakthrough feature, this gritty social drama follows fifteen-year old bully-victim Billy as he finds an escape from his harsh, monotonous existence by adopting a kestrel. Set amongst the rapidly stagnating coal-mining communities of Yorkshire, Loach’s brave choice to use actors with authentic Barnsley accents and dialects meant Kes made a loss during its brief foray across the pond, but the strength of the central performances and narrative has led to a deserved seventh-placed ranking in the BFI’s Top Ten British Films.

The Seventies: Black Jack (1979)

Winning the Critics’ Award at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, this children’s period piece is perhaps one of Loach’s least political, and least well-known, works. Set in 18th Century Yorkshire, it revolves around a French sailor escaping execution and teaming up with a young English boy and girl for a series of comic adventures. Although, like much of Loach’s work, Black Jack failed to find a mainstream audience, the film was positively reviewed by most critics, particularly for the cinematography by Chris Menges (The Killing Fields, Notes on a Scandal).

The Eighties: Which Side Are You On? (1985)

In a discussion marking his acceptance of an Auteur Award at the 24th Raindance Film Festival last month, Loach admitted the 1980s were a particularly difficult decade for his career; indeed, he largely confined himself to documentary-based political dissidence during the Thatcher years. Which Side Are You On? is a doc that compiles songs, poems and experiences to tell the story of the 1984-85 Miner’s Strike, and though hardly Loach’s most ground-breaking work, the film does bring an intriguing human element to the wider industrial crisis.

The Nineties: Land and Freedom (1995)

Loach returned to cinematic prominence in the 1990s, most notably with this story of an unemployed Liverpudlian communist joining the fight against General Franco’s fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War. Told as a long flashback, the film not only grapples with the clash of anarchist, Trotskyist and Stalinist ideals and the internecine conflict from which the anti-Franco coalition suffered during the war, but also provides the audience with their fair share of action set-pieces and battle scenes. Land and Freedom (or Tierra y Libertad) won a slew of awards, grossed close to seven figures in the UK and amassed an impressive $1.5million in Spain.

The Noughties: The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)

Starring a young Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins, Peaky Blinders), this tale of two Irish republicans fighting a guerrilla war against British forces secured Loach both his first Palme d’Or and a scathing Daily Mail column entitled “Why does Ken Loach loathe his country so much?”, which took issue with the film’s ostensible depiction of British forces as sadistic and Irish fighters as warm-hearted idealists. Despite the controversy, audiences and critics were sufficiently wowed: The Wind that Shakes the Barley holds an 88% approval rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, has grossed $20.9 million worldwide and was the most successful Irish-made independent film ever until being surpassed by The Guard in 2011.

The Present: I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Were it not for a sudden and welcome change of heart, 2014’s modest success Jimmy’s Hall would have been Loach’s last contribution to the film industry, since he announced his retirement the same year. Thankfully, he soon abandoned the idea and surged back on to the scene with this story of an unemployed Geordie, recovering from a heart attack and attempting to negotiate the labyrinthine benefits system, befriending a similarly unemployed single mother. You can find The Palatinate’s full review on our website, but in short, the film deservedly won Loach his second Palme d’Or and has the capacity to move even the most ardent right-winger to tears.

Photograph: Courtesy of Entertainment One

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