Class Matters at MIFF: The Souvenir and Sorry We Missed You

Class Matters at MIFF: The Souvenir and Sorry We Missed You

By Isabella Trimboli

If anything sums up the loss of dignity involved in gig economy work, it’s pissing into a plastic bottle. Last month, Amazon’s UK workers protested their working conditions across the country, stating they were urinating in bottles in order to meet impossible work targets. This abasement bleeds into Ken Loach’s stark new drama Sorry We Missed You, when the film’s lead Ricky is handed a grimey empty bottle by a fellow contractor, who warns him: “You’re going to need this”.

Sorry We Missed You is the latest addition to Loach’s career-long quest to chronicle struggling, working-class Britons and the cruelty of a government that routinely fails them (see: Ladybird Ladybird, Bread and Roses (MIFF 2000), and The Navigators from MIFF 2002). His 2016 Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, explored the bureaucratic minefield of trying to claim basic welfare benefits. Here, he turns his attention to a more recent exploitation: the gig economy and zero-hour contracts. 

The film follows Ricky (Kris Hitchen), a former labourer who finds a role as a freelance delivery driver, where he works, punishingly hard, without any benefits. As his warehouse boss explains to him early in the film, he’s not hired, he comes “on board”; he doesn’t drive for the company, he “performs services”; there are no wages, only “fees”. Oh, and he has to purchase or rent his own van to work.

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Kris Hitchen and Katie Proctor in Ken Loach's Sorry We Missed You

Ricky’s routes are plotted by a portable scanner, ominously referred to as a “gun”, and he’s required to hit an impossibly narrow delivery window. His wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) finds herself in different but similarly demeaning circumstances, working as a carer where she feeds, fills emotional voids and scrubs faeces off her patients with no overtime. With the couple working from dawn until late into the night, the lives of their two children begin to unravel alongside them.

There is a brutality to Loach’s vision - from the abrasive cacophony of desperate productivity in the warehouse  to the increasingly haggard faces of Ricky and Abbie as they slide further into financial woe.

The film is anchored by Hitchen and Honeywood’s shattering performances, which texturise screenwriter Paul Laverty’s sometimes platitudinous script with real grit and depth. 

There are also moments of real tenderness and grace: Ricky’s daughter accompanying him on a delivery run, the family bonding over a meal of Indian takeout, and Abbie’s cathartic phone confrontation with Ricky’s boss. 

The greatest strength of Sorry We Missed You is how Loach plots incremental indignities that mount as the film goes on. It creates a sense of suffocation, culminating in a near-unwatchable, bleak finale. It’s punishing and confronting, but feels like necessary, urgent viewing. 

Yet, Loach’s focus on creating a pressurised environment can come at the expense of nuanced characters. Ricky’s son Seb (Rhys Stone), for example, is thinly drawn as a troublemaking teen; his truancy and acts of petty crime and vandalism seem designed to drive tension and service the plot, with little exploration of his inner life.  

His reiteration of the family’s innate goodness and tireless work ethic, too, often feels excessive. Countering damaging, false narratives of the working class is one thing,  but benevolence should not be a prerequisite to earning a living wage and retaining basic labour rights. No one deserves to be this powerless.

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A scene from Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir

I wonder then what Ken Loach would make of Joanna Hogg’s upper-middle-class memoir The Souvenir? Their filmmaking focuses on different ends of the class spectrum, and yet they both share a knack for breathing tightly wound tension into mundane moments, and a preference for social realist filmmaking that fosters a chilly, sometimes uncomfortable intimacy. 

Set in Thatcher’s Britain, The Souvenir concerns Julie, a sweet yet naive film student in her mid-twenties. She spends her time poring over a ridiculous old typewriter in her expensive Knightsbridge apartment, attempting to write a script about a disadvantaged child and the “rot” of Sunderland, a shipyard city in decline. Every time she relays her plans for the prospective movie, the idea becomes more obscure and ill-defined, as if it is slipping away from her. 

“I don’t want to live my life in this very privileged bubble, I want to be really aware of what’s going on around me,” Julie explains when probed about her project by a panel of professors at university. But Julie’s intentions are at odds with her lived experience. 

Much of The Souvenir takes place indoors, with Julie essentially cloistered from the social, economic and political tensions gripping the country. During a lunch with her well-off family, the punishment of recently-arrested IRA members is reduced to dinner debate. Later, Julie watches from the safety of her apartment as nearby luxury department store Harrods is bombed - literally insulated from the chaos.

Her preoccupation with the Sunderland film starts to wane when she becomes involved with Anthony, an older Foreign Office worker with a beguiling but nauseating bravado. He enthralls Julie with his decadent lifestyle – trips to Venice, monogrammed slippers, opulent tearooms. But the relationship fractures when she learns of his addiction to heroin. 

Hogg uses the relationship to tease out the complex, nuanced dynamics of subservience, compulsive codependency and emotional manipulation, painting a gut-wrenching portrayal of a young woman losing her identity in an all-consuming, destructive relationship. In one infuriating exchange, Julie confronts Anthony after he has burgled her apartment, but winds up apologising.

The film is a deeply personal document that also feels distant, heightened by dreamy, fragmented scenes and wide, grainy shots of characters in darkened corridors that, like Jean-Honore Fragonard’s painting The Souvenir (which the film is named after), feel like singular, moody portraits in themselves.

Honor Swinton Byrne is revelatory as Julie, all wide-eyed and unknowing, carrying herself with an awkward unease. In a profile in The New Yorker, Hogg revealed that Tom Burke, who plays Anthony, was given the script a month before shooting, whereas Swinton Byrne went into the shoot completely cold, a tactic that helps magnify the character’s unworldliness. 

Given its autobiographical bent, The Souvenir could so easily slip into sentimentality or self-aggrandisement, but its magic is in the way it artfully resists this. Hogg is masterful in her capabilities to interrogate her former self, whilst at the same time deeply honouring the experiences and feelings of her youth. It’s in this duality, and the film’s complicated and unresolved dissection of class, power, desire and art that make The Souvenir so hypnotic. 

The Souvenir plays the 2019 Melbourne International Film Festival on Thursday 8 and Saturday 10 August, and Sorry We Missed You plays on Saturday 3 and Saturday 10 August.

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