My Name is Joe
MY NAME IS JOE
Great Britain, 1998
Director: Ken Loach
Production: Parallax Pictures and Road Movies Vierte Produktion; color; running time: 103 min. Released 15 May 1998, Cannes Film Festival, France, and 6 November 1998, London. Filmed in Glasgow and Inverary, Scotland.
Producer: Rebecca O'Brien; executive producer: Ulrich Felsberg; screenplay: Paul Laverty; photography: Barry Ackroyd; editor: Jonathan Morris; production design: Martin Johnson; casting: Gillian Berrie, Steven Mochrie; music: George Fenton; makeup: Anastasia Shirley; sound: Ray Beckett, John Hayward.
Cast: Peter Mullan (Joe); Louise Goodall (Sarah); Edna McKay (Liam); Annemarie Kennedy (Sabine); Gary Lewis (Shanks); Lorraine McIntosh (Maggie); David Hayman (McGowan).
Awards: British Independent Film Awards for Best Director of an Independent British Film, Best British Independent Film, and Best Original Screenplay, 1998; Cannes Film Festival Best Actor Award (Peter Mullan), 1998; Danish Film Critics Award (Bodil) for Best Non-American Film, 1998; Danish Film Academy Award (Robert) for Best Non-American Film, 1998; London Critics Circle Award for Best British Newcomer of the Year (Peter Mullan), 1999.
Niogret, Hubert, review in Positif (Paris), October 1998
Williamson, Judith, review in Sight and Sound (London),
Distelmeyer, Jan, review in EPD Film (Frankfurt), January 1999
* * *
In the 1990s Ken Loach gave us a string of powerful human dramas borne by the social commitment and humane solidarity with the weakest members of society so characteristic of the director; in his films they are not mere victims, but also strong individuals, people possessed of integrity and identity. However, the difference from his political television films of the 1960s and 1970s is pronounced. They depicted the class struggle, but in the 1990s films the focus shifted to people marginalized by the labor market who were fighting for their self-esteem in an England where industrialism was on its way out. In the 1990s, too, Loach made what is for him a rare trip beyond the shores of England to countries and periods where people could talk of revolution with hope. But Land and Freedom and Carla's Song are not Loach at his best. He is at his best when portraying the English worker.
The Joe of the title is a former alcoholic who is trying to stay on the wagon. He lives on social security and moonlighting, and works off his restless energy coaching a group of social rejects on the football field. One of his proteges is an ex-junkie, Liam, whose girlfriend Sabine is mainlining, and whose offspring is monitored by the local health department visitor, Sarah. This is how Sarah and Joe meet, and although they have both been bitten and are now twice shy, their encounter develops into a tentative, exploratory love—a rare theme for Loach, and rarer still depicted with such warmth and subtlety. Their growing love is put to the test when Joe agrees to run drugs in order to save Liam from McGowan's gangsters, to whom he owes £1500. Joe's solidarity with and human sympathy for Liam butts up against Sarah's view that he is thereby obtaining drugs to create even more Liams. The difference in perception is not only personal but also determined by class, for although they both move among the underclass, Joe is part of it and indeed grew up with McGowan, the gangster boss, while Sarah views it from without. She is a professional with a car and a regular job, and faced with the alternatives Joe lists for Liam's predicament, the natural rhetorical question is "What would you have done?"
The film opens with a close-up of Joe telling his story to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and ends on a calm long shot of Joe and Sarah leaving Liam's funeral: from the man on his own to a hint of a future together. Between the two shots we are given the story of a man who is repeatedly being forced to struggle his way out of his own and other people's problems: alcohol, drug-related jobs, debts, and old but compromising friendships. The first half of the film is related in light, comedy-colored tones, with a restless energy in the editing and movement shaped in accordance with Joe's own temperament. Everything takes place at a run as Joe keeps up his level of activity so as not to relapse into alcoholism. There is great strength and humanity in this character, a powerful warmth and charisma that Sarah falls for, too—and is afraid of. But just as Liam is the cause of their meeting, he is also the cause of their separation. The light tone fades and the story assumes gloomy hues with the assault on Liam on the football pitch cross-edited with Sabine's behavior at the social services office, which leads directly to Joe's job as a drug courier. The insoluble moral and human dilemma now becomes didactically illustrated, with Joe torn between his desire to keep his relationship and his desire to help Liam. Behind this, the other issues pile up. How and why did Liam get into this predicament? Why has Sarah been unable to do anything about a situation of which she, if anyone, is aware? However, if Liam is a loser there is a cause, and if Joe is a fighter, he is also up against impossible odds. Even if the film ends with a hint of conciliation between Sarah and Joe, any hope is not unequivocal but merely defiant.
To Joe, like other Loach characters of the 1990s, what counts is surviving with some kind of self respect, although not necessarily in accordance with the accepted definitions. In My Name is Joe and Raining Stones stealing money to pay for a dress for a first communion or stealing Brazilian football kit to boost the self-esteem of a team that has never won a match isn't depicted as breaking the law, but rather as a strength, a positive manifestation of solidarity and independent initiative. Those scenes condense the dilemma of the working class.
Ken Loach possesses a rare ability to depict a community as if it were cut straight out of real life, a reality Loach observes from a distance but with empathy and repose, devoid of sentimentality or easy answers such as those provided by feel-good films like The Full Monty and Brassed Off. Authenticity and genuineness are the key, and for viewers they endow the people and the setting with as much importance as the surrounding plot. One of the best sides of cinema has always been its inherent ability to record and capture reality. For an artist like Loach the result is a successful fusion of a human, powerful, politically and socially relevant story with images from a world that seldom appears on the silver screen, and even more rarely with the solidarity and concerned commitment characteristic of his films.