What a remarkable filmmaker Ken Loach is. Since he modestly started his career during the 1960s, he has ardently stuck to his integrity as well as his artistry during more than 50 years, and that admirable aspect of his is touchingly portrayed in Louise Osmond’s documentary film “Versus: the Life and Films of Ken Loach”. While being informative and interesting for illuminating Loach’s early career years, the documentary also gives us a little glimpse into his life and personality, and the result is a sincere and honest tribute to one of the most compassionate filmmakers in our time.
During its first half, the documentary focuses on Loach’s career during the 1960-70s. While he initially tried acting, Loach eventually found himself becoming a movie director as working in BBC, and his several TV movies for BBC’s Wednesday Play were quite sensational at that time for not only their earthly working-class characters but also the raw realism and social issues inside them. In case of “Cathy Come Home” (1966), its harrowing realistic drama impressed viewers so much that it subsequently ignited a number of public debates on the line between fact and fiction, and Tony Garnett, who appeared in “Up the Junction” (1965) and then became the producer of Loach’s early works including “Kes” (1969), gives us an amusing anecdote about his meeting between him and a government minister who wanted to hear Garnett’s opinion on the social issues raised by “Cathy Come Home”.
While continuing to make TV movies for the BBC, Loach also made a few feature films for theatrical release, and one of them was “Kes”, which is still one of the best films in his career. David Bradley, who was 14 when he was cast for the lead role of the film, recollects when he was notified by Loach that he won the part, and he tells us a bit about how Loach drew a terrific natural performance from him. When he shot one particular scene, Loach did not tell much to Bradley on what to say in front the camera, but that brought out what exactly he wanted from Bradley during that scene, which is surely one of key moments in the film.
Despite the considerable success of “Kes”, Loach’s career did not advance much during the 1970s, and the situation became quite more difficult for him during the 1980s. While his theatrical films suffered from poor distribution, several TV documentaries directed by him were prevented from being shown on TV. In case of TV documentary film “A Question of Leadership” (1981), it was blocked from being broadcast because of its relentless criticism of union leaders, and “Which Side Are You On?” (1985) was rejected for being ‘too political’.
And then there came another trouble in 1987. Jim Allen, a left-wing writer who was one of Loach’s close friends and also considerably influenced Loach’s political view, wrote a play named “Perdition”, and its sensitive subject drew lots of controversies even before its scheduled run at the Royal Court Theater. When its run was eventually canceled, Loach was understandably furious about that, and Gabriel Byrne, who participated in the rehearsal as one of the cast members, still remembers well how wrathful and unbending Loach was at that time. As shown from his interview clips, Loach is a mild, gentle guy on the whole, but he is not someone who would easily step back for compromise, and that aspect is evident as he talks about that incident with some bitterness.
However, as struggling to support his family, Loach eventually came to accept that he had to compromise a bit, so he decided to shoot several commercials, and we get the most amusing moment in the film. While I think his commercials for Nestlé and McDonald’s do not look that bad, Loach is still embarrassed by them although his children appreciate the artistic compromise their father made for them.
Fortunately, Loach’s career gradually rose with considerable successes during the 1990s. After “Hidden Agenda” (1990) received the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, he came to have more opportunities to make films than before, and that led to a series of notable works including “Raining Stones” (1993), “My Name is Joe” (1998), “Bread and Roses” (2000), “Sixteen Candles” (2002), and “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” (2006), which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival. After “The Angel’s Share” (2012) and “Jimmy’s Hall” (2014), Loach announced that he would retire from filmmaking, but then he came to change his mind when the Conservative party won the election in 2015. He felt that old need to tell stories of under-represented working-class people, and that led to “I, Daniel Blake” (2016), which garnered him his second Palme d’Or early in last year.
Although it is a little shame that the documentary does not delve a lot into the later years of Loach’s career, the documentary compensates for that through the behind-the-scene footage clips of “I, Daniel Blake”. We see Loach preparing for the production of the film, and then we observe how Loach closely works with his main performers Dave Johns and Hayley Squires. Loach sees that Johns and Squires have right qualities for playing their respective characters, and that is evident as watching Johns and Squires preparing for their roles.
Overall, “Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach” is a solid documentary film which does its job as well as intended, and I came to admire Loach and his works more after watching it. While he already passed 80, he seems to be willing to go further while following his artistic passion and political belief as usual, and it will be interesting to see whatever will come next from him.