Ken Loach's films range from the brilliant to the tedious, often within the same work -- his Spanish Civil War epic Land And Freedom features both crisply constructed, chaotic battle scenes and endless earnest discussions of agrarian land reform. At their best, Loach's films offer solid dramatic construction, deeply felt performances and an unwavering commitment to social justice.
Here are four of the best from Cinematheque's upcoming retrospective, through May 12 (416-968-FILM).
RIFF RAFF (1991). April 26, 6:30 pm. Rating: NNNNN
Margaret Thatcher's greatest legacy may be the rising political fury she inspired in British cinema in the 80s and early 90s. Of course, Loach was already there. He didn't need Thatcher to work up a rage at the plight of a group of group of undocumented, non-unionized, exploited construction workers in London. An intensely humane study of the English working class. Bonus: a tremendous performance by Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting) in his first starring role.
POOR COW (1967). March 23, 8:45 pm, March 31, 6:30 pm. Rating: NNNN
Loach's striking debut functions as almost the perfect anti-swinging-London movie, with Carol White as a young working-class woman who marries too young, is too attracted to low-level criminals and too uneducated to work as anything but a barmaid and borderline hooker. The message is that growing up poor and uneducated leads to serial horrible life decisions. The bleak cinematography of rundown flat blocks and peeling wallpaper has a documentary realism. Great Britpop soundtrack.
KES (1969). March 24 and 30, 6:30 pm. Rating: NNNN
In this story of a boy and his hawk (a great kids' film if your kids can sort through the thick Yorkshire accents), a working-class lad in the coal town of Barnsley is drawn to the symbolic freedom of the local raptors. (The title is short for kestrel, a common European hawk.) Stunning cinematography -- Kes was Loach's first collaboration with double Oscar winner Chris Menges, with whom he would work nine more times.
HIDDEN AGENDA (1990). April 21, 8:45 pm. Rating: NNNN
Loach's most conventionally satisfying film, Hidden Agenda is an investigative thriller about political murder in Ireland, with Frances McDormand and Brian Cox. Naturally, it was denounced by the Times as "the official IRA entry to the Cannes Film Festival." Given Cox's later success as an American character actor (Zodiac, Adaptation), it's a pleasure to see him in a starring role closer to home.