Riff-Raff: Poetry of the Working Class

The British filmmaker Ken Loach is not exactly young: Born in 1936, he has been making movies for over two decades. Yet his name and work are hardly known in the American film scene. Indeed, in a glaring omission, Loach is not even mentioned in Ephraim Katz' The Film Encyclopedia, one of the major film dictionaries.

Beginning his career as a revue performer, Loach turned to TV direction in the l960s, making his mark with the popular BBC police series, Z-Cars. In 1967, Loach made his feature debut, Poor Cow, a film that incorporated leftist ideology and cinema verite technique in a sordid picture of English working-class life. 
 
As a filmmaker, Loach is committed to stark, socially conscious gritty dramas that often feature non-professional actors. Two years ago, Loach slightly diverted from his cinematic principles and directed Hidden Agenda, an effective political thriller set amidst the battleground of Northern Ireland. The film won an award at the Cannes Film Festival and increased Loach's international visibility, but was a commercial failure in the U.S.
 
I am therefore delighted to report that Loach is back in top form with his new film, Riff-Raff (at the Nuart), a social comedy celebrating the will to survive and the dignity of the British working class.
 
At the center of the narrative is Stevie (Robert Carlyle), a Scottish youngster who had spent some time in prison, but is now anxious to escape his past and begin a new life. Stevie gets a job as a construction worker, laboring at a dilapidated London construction site, converting an old hospital into luxury condos. He is surrounded with the kinds of men you rarely see in British or American films: a melting pot of ex-cons and immigrants. 
 
The film also depicts a tender love affair between Stevie and Susan (Emer McCourt), a would-be singer who is so bad you know she'll never make it. Before long, the couple moves together into a squat. Their dreams remain unfulfilled, but they share some good times in their daily struggle to stay ahead of poverty. Both have to fight bad habits and nasty pasts, though in the end it is Stevie who survives through his strong will power.
 
The dialogue is funny, yet completely realistic. There are no one-liners or punch lines; the humor derives from the men's routine conversations. This degree of realism is probably a result of the fact that it was written by Bill Jesse, a construction worker himself. In the past, moviegoers complained that the authentic accents in Loach's films were not clear, so this time around he decided to subtitle the dialogue, which is of great assistance.
 
Loach gets deep into the psyche of his characters, providing intimate information about their lifestyle. Hired on a pick basis, the men are just as easily fired. They are, of course, exploited, underpaid, and work under unsafe conditions. Most of them don't even have a bank account to cash their weekly checks. To alleviate the tedium of their work and make it more enjoyable, the men use humor and other schemes.
 
Significantly, the first and last image of the film is that of rats, dirty and disgusting animals–Loach refuses to sentimentalize the lives he discerns. Riff-Raff deals with a harrowing daily existence, and while not exactly hopeful, it does contain a universal message about the need and will to survive. Its working class heroes are simple and formally uneducated, but they have dignity, humanity, and generosity of spirit.