It was only ten years ago, with 2009’s larky ‘Looking for Eric’, that Ken Loach was able to show us a man delivering letters and parcels whose workplace was a refuge for him – a place of camaraderie and solidarity in an otherwise troubled life. It’s almost the reverse in his latest, a damning and far darker film. Whenever family life in Newcastle looks to be coming together for Ricky (Kris Hitchen), a Salford-born delivery driver for a private parcels firm, and his wife, Abby (Debbie Honeywood), a carer, it’s the world of work that crushes them and pushes them ever closer to breaking point.
For both Ricky and Abby, but especially for Ricky, work is rarely rewarding or empowering. It’s degrading and damaging, especially when it comes to their relationships with each other and their school-age kids, glass-half-full daughter Lisa (Katie Proctor) and vulnerable son Seb (Rhys Stone) – and the mental health of them all. The film begins with Ricky signing up to a new job – dropping off parcels at breakneck speed around the city. But it’s an app-driven posting – a gig-economy non-job – that comes with next to zero benefits: no contract, no confirmed earnings and, worst of all, a series of penalties that kick in if you don’t toe the line or meet targets.
‘Sorry We Missed You’ returns us to the same modern Newcastle of ‘I, Daniel Blake’. You can imagine glancing at the characters from that earlier film in the wing mirror of the gleaming white van that Ricky drives all over the city. It feels like a companion piece to that 2016 film. It’s the same world, with a different story, and there are specific ways, too, in which the films talk to each other: the work-world jargon spoken over the blacked-out opening credits; an interest in the drama of graffiti; and a key scene in which a main character is pushed to a dehumanising breaking point in public. What’s different is the detail with which Loach and his collaborators examine the effects of work and society on the nuclear family. The film’s tragedy is that no amount of love and goodwill can save us when the cards are so horribly stacked against us.
And that title, ‘Sorry We Missed You’: of course it’s the faux-friendly message left on doorsteps everywhere by parcel delivery firms. But here it also nods to the left behind, to the overlooked, to the forgotten. Loach and his team, including the writer Paul Laverty, demonstrated a new urgency in their work with 2016’s ‘I, Daniel Blake’. You can feel it again with this powerful, bleak film that feels acutely of the moment but also carries within it the same question that Loach has been asking for more than 50 years: does life really have to be like this?