As a raucous howl of protest at a welfare state disemboweled by decades of unhinged privatization, Ken Loach’s 2016 I, Daniel Blake ended with no exclamation marks, but a wall daubed in white paint. “I, Daniel Blake, demand my appeal date before I starve,” read the graffiti penned by Dave Johns’s eponymous Daniel, a 59-year-old carpenter and widower wrestling with a catch-22 state-enforced conundrum: avoid work or risk another heart attack, look for jobs or lose welfare benefits. It was an intricate, Kafkaesque nightmare of desk people, computers, and unanswered calls ("change the shite music on the phone," the graffiti ended), a bureaucratic apparatus that gradually morphed into a dehumanizing Leviathan. But it also echoed as a hymn to the resilience of the downtrodden, and a call for empathy over and against a system designed to strip individuals of their basic rights. Daniel Blake’s paint-splayed offense was the ultimate, hopeless paean of an ever-growing section of society faced with what Loach has referred to as the constant humiliation to survive: “if you’re not angry about it, what kind of person are you?”
The question reverberates just as loudly in Sorry We Missed You, Loach’s follow-up to his 2016 Palme d’Or winner (the English cineaste’s second after nabbing one in 2006 for The Wind That Shakes the Barley). Set again in the same Newcastle Daniel Blake had roamed in his hopeless search for jobs, Loach's new film homes in on a family of four, delivery man Ricky (Kris Hitchen), home-care nurse Abby (Debbie Honeywood), their teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone), and daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor). Plunged into endless debt after the collapse of the Northern Bank, forced to give up a house he’d bought and to rely on evanescent and short-lived jobs for years on end, Ricky sells body and soul to a delivery company that relies exclusively on independent contractors, and promises fast cash in exchange for 14-hours-a-day shifts, six days a week. “You’re a trooper,” heartless boss Maloney (Ross Brewster) welcomes Ricky, sugarcoating the lack of basic rights and the faintest trace of benefits with a bombastic invite to become “the master of your own destiny.” It’s neoliberalism 101, where the best citizens - read: the most functional - are those who can turn into self-regulating pawns within a market that dictates and follows its own rules (number one: never waste time, as Ricky is taught by a fellow van driver who tosses him a plastic bottle: “you’ll need it for a piss”).
Working again with longtime collaborator and scribe Paul Laverty, Loach focuses less on those alienating office encounters that paved Daniel’s struggle to highlight instead the prices—financial, physical, and mental—the gig economy exacts on its victims. Where the dread that permeated much of I, Daniel Blake came from watching as a man fought against a system that remains forever hermetic and inaccessible to those in need, here it stems from witnessing as another literally succumbs to a routine which no human being can hope to survive unscathed. And it’s interesting to see just how pivotal a role technology comes to play in deepening that sense of despair. For me, part of what made I, Daniel Blake so poignant resided in Loach’s ability to tease out the full extent of Daniel’s digital divide, as an invisible barrier that made his quest to reenter the labor force more arduous still. And there’s a powerful analogy to be made between Daniel’s life-or-death struggle to learn how to use a computer and Ricky’s clutching his scanner for dear life, as if it were a protruding limb he’s taught to revere and protect at all costs.
And yet, all comparisons notwithstanding, I fear that billing Sorry We Missed You as a companion piece to its predecessor would be to miss on the different sense of anger and tragedy Loach and Laverty here develop. Sure, Ricky’s odyssey certainly does unfurl as a continuation of the excursions into poverty-stricken Britain the director’s ventured into for the past five decades. But by choosing to focus on a whole family - by capturing the ways in which parents and children suffer, and resist, together - Sorry We Missed You brims with a tragic and belligerent aura, largely because of the indomitable energy with which Ricky’s family struggles to stick together, and of Loach’s ability to capture an intramural universe falling apart. It is in the confines of the Turners’ house that Loach’s crafts some of his most heart-wrenching material, bringing to mind Richard Billingham’s Ray and Liz, another recent and piercing portrait of a family coming to pieces under financial duress, with which Sorry We Missed You would make for an illuminating double-bill.
There’s something ineffably moving in watching Liza Jane put away her parents’ dishes while the two lie exhausted and asleep in front of the TV, something wrecking in the struggle father and daughter undertake to squeeze in some time together in between his impossibly tight delivery schedule. “I wish we just didn’t have to fight so much,” she tells him over a strictly monitored two-minute work break, and it is the first in a long series of domestic heart to hearts that manage to stir up empathy without ever sensationalizing the family’s suffering, slipping into facile sentimentalisms, or glossing over the astounding strength with which they seek to pull through.
Traditional tropes resurface, from Loach’s penchant for football rivalries to his interest in the genealogy—and ultimately, disintegration—of workers’ rights. It is disheartening to notice just how much has changed since the struggles that workers undertook in the heat of the Thatcher years. “You work from 7:30 in the morning till 9 at night?” one of Abby’s elderly patients asks her, after reminiscing and waxing proudly over some 1980s strikes, eyes bugging out in indignation: “what happened to the 8-hour job?” And in the brief silence that follows lies the film’s most lacerating reckoning - the idea that the collective struggles of the past, the very notion of community, might no longer hold any meaning whatsoever. In its plea for compassion and outrage, Sorry We Missed You is anything but apologetic: it’s fierce, relentless, and devastating – a timely call for humanism, and a testament to all the dignity of Loach’s working-class martyrs.