Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You is an indictment of the gig economy

Ken Loach’s latest excursion into breadline Britain follows a delivery driver on a zero-hours contract.

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Halfway through Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach’s latest excursion into breadline Britain and a companion piece to his career-rejuvenating I, Daniel Blake, Abby (Debbie Honeywood) is recounting a nightmare in which she and her husband Ricky (Kris Hitchen) are stuck in quicksand. Their children, 11-year-old Lisa Jane (Katie Proctor) and 15-year-old Seb (Rhys Stone), try to pull them out but the more the adults struggle, the deeper they sink. There’s not much point in Abby mulling over the meaning of this, and no need to run it past a therapist. She and Ricky are workers in the gig economy, the instability of employment eating away at their wellbeing. “It’ll be different in six months,” is their plaintive mantra as they pile more hours on to their working week.

Ricky has been hired as a delivery driver on a zero-hours contract, for a courier firm called Parcels Delivered Fast. Or, in the company’s own parlance, he has been “on boarded” to “perform services”. Abby sells her car so Ricky can afford the deposit needed to buy his own van (the alternative is renting one for £65 a day), even though she is a carer, and will need to rely on buses to ferry her between elderly and disabled clients on her 14-hour shifts. It’s only one of the trade-offs the family makes (Seb, for instance, decides to sell his winter coat to fund a hobby) and it reflects the larger one at the heart of their predicament: the sacrifice of contentment in exchange for a few extra pounds.

Even having his own vehicle doesn’t rescue Ricky from the pitfalls and injustices of this new working environment, where the van is his but the franchise belongs to the firm. The rules are laid out for him by the manager Maloney (Ross Brewster), who has a head like a rugby ball and refers to himself proudly as “Nasty Bastard Number One”. We never get to meet Nasty Bastards Two or Three. Presumably Maloney ate them: he has the sort of physique that makes a brick shithouse look like a glamping marquee.

Ricky’s life now revolves around a handheld scanner. “This decides who lives and who dies,” Maloney says admiringly. The mysterious and sinister device zaps the barcodes on each parcel, plots out his route and even tells him when to get his skates on (“There’s the two-minute beep”). Maloney refers to it as a “gun”, though perhaps he is thinking of Chekhov’s gun: from the moment he explains the terrible consequences of breaking the scanner, we know that disaster will be waiting for Ricky in the final act. To say the pressures of the job have a pernicious effect on him is an understatement. Seizing by the throat a customer who won’t provide proof of identity, Ricky growls: “Get your ID, you dickhead, or I’ll ram the fucking package down your throat!” Postman Pat he isn’t.

Loach is 83 now, and it would be unrealistic to expect him to discard old storytelling habits, however hokey they might be. Immediately after a speech of bracing malignancy by Maloney, we get the exact opposite: a monologue delivered by a police officer about the sanctity of family (“It’s massive, man!”). The effect is no more sophisticated than if a devil and an angel were to take turns at the lectern. And while it’s no surprise that everything bad that could happen to this saintly family does, it is curious that none of Abby’s clients in this corner of Newcastle are curmudgeonly or even bitter; they all suffer nobly. It’s rarely said about salt-of-the-earth characters that their strongest component is usually sugar.

Even so, the screenwriter Paul Laverty, a long-time collaborator of Loach’s (this is their 13th feature together), has found nuance and wiggle-room. Hardship has sent social roles into free-fall, with children performing parental duties. Seb reminds his mother not to use her phone at the table, and Lisa Jane bangs on the wall to tell Ricky and Abby to stop fighting. It is the little girl also who clears away the crockery after her parents have conked out, and it is she who wakes her elder brother for school. In one scene, Ricky is reduced to riding his son’s bike (how’s that for a nod to Italian neorealism?). In another, an elderly woman asks sweetly if she can brush Abby’s hair, providing the film with its most arresting reversal: the carer being cared for.

In its vision of fulfilment throttled by capitalism, Sorry We Missed You resembles one of those fairy tales such as The Magic Porridge Pot, in which some longed-for wish for plenitude brings only havoc. Once the corrosive effects of Ricky’s new job are felt at home, Seb and Lisa Jane both express a desire for life to revert to how it was before, for the genie to return to the bottle. In a moment of frustration, Seb resorts to a more hostile cry for help, spraying black crosses on the family portraits hanging in the house. It’s an unambiguous message from an unhappy boy – those crosses might almost be kisses if the intention were not the inverse – and an indelible image from a director not renowned for the visual flourish. 

Sorry We Missed You (15)
dir: Ken Loach

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 30 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone