‘Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach’: Film Review

Courtesy of Sixteen Films
A warm but predictable tribute to the Bernie Sanders of social-realist cinema.

The campaigning British director marks his 80th birthday with this career-spanning documentary, with contributions from screen comrades including Cillian Murphy.

The gods of cinema gave a timely boost to this documentary portrait of Ken Loach, which opens just weeks after the veteran British filmmaker picked up his second Palme d’Or in Cannes with his hard-knuckled social drama I, Daniel Blake. Directed by former Sundance audience prize-winner Louise Osmond, Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach opens in U.K. theaters later this week, promoted with “pay what you can” screenings aimed at viewers on lower incomes — a worthy and very Loach-ian touch. Even so, this partisan promotional project feels best suited to small-screen home formats. Though competently assembled, it is little more than a lightweight primer on the helmer, containing few fresh or challenging insights.

To devotees of social-realist cinema, Loach is a legendary elder statesman. To Brits like me, he almost feels like part of the family (indeed, he was born on exactly the same day as my own father). Celebrating his 80th birthday this month, Loach continues to make the kind of gritty, angry, issue-driven depictions of working-class life that first made his reputation on BBC television in the '60s. This dedicated approach has produced several all-time classic films, though his later works have tended towards the dogmatic, schematic and predictable. In this sense, Loach is the Woody Allen of kitchen-sink drama.

Osmond skips selectively through Loach’s half-century career in a non-linear manner, with special emphasis on his groundbreaking 1966 TV drama Cathy Come Home, his beloved 1969 breakthrough movie Kes and his latest Cannes prize-winner I, Daniel Blake. She also gathers tributes from actors, writers and fellow filmmakers who have worked with Loach, including Cillian Murphy, Gabriel Byrne and director Alan Parker.

In his own interviews, Loach appears reticent and wary of self-revelation, though his youthful efforts as a minor comic stage actor provide a few lighter moments in Versus. Osmond also tactfully touches on darker matters, including the horrific car crash in 1970 that killed the director’s five-year-old son and his wife’s grandmother.

Later in the film, Loach sheepishly recalls a desperate period of censored and stalled projects in the late '80s, when he only avoided bankruptcy by compromising his principles and shooting TV commercials for Nestle and McDonald's. His wife Lesley and grown-up children also share their memories in brief interview clips.

A joint venture between the BBC, the British Film Institute and Loach’s own production company, Sixteen Films, Versus is officially authorized and largely uncritical. Beyond a few fleeting onscreen press quotes attacking him as a “louse” and a “barking mad Marxist,” the director gets an easy ride from Osmond. Interviewees are unanimous in their praise for his steely dedication and unbending principles. Meanwhile, Loach himself casually dismisses as “despicable” or “cowardly” the former collaborators and TV networks who shelved projects that they deemed to be politically biased. No nuance, no debate.

The doc is also low on cinematic or political analysis. Osmond offers a brisk crash course in Loach’s moviemaking methods: casting non-professional actors, limiting their access to the full script, shooting in chronological sequence for maximum realism. But there is scant sense here of how his films have evolved stylistically, which ones rank among his best and why, which had the greatest social impact and so on.

Likewise the helmer’s personal journey is very thinly sketched. It is never entirely clear who or what transformed Loach from a conservative-leaning, middle-class son of a factory worker to a radicalized graduate of Oxford University at the dawn of the revolutionary '60s. Osmond only refers to his socialist principles in vague terms, swamping too many scenes in Roger Goula’s cloying score, which clumsily invokes a fuzzy sense of heart-tugging compassion for the underdog.

A more rigorous, scrupulous film would have taken the time to explain why such compassion is politically necessary. It might also have explored Loach’s support for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, for example, or his membership of various leftist political parties in the U.K., or his contentious involvement with the BDS boycott movement against Israel. For a director whose entire career has been defined by steadfast opposition to capitalism and its discontents, this lack of critical scrutiny feels strangely squeamish.

Of course, most documentary portraits of fellow filmmakers are love letters, and Loach deserves this cinematic version of a lifetime achievement award as much as anyone. Versus works fine as a beginner’s primer on a celebrated director, but it is thin on detail and preaching to the converted. A few more dissenting voices would have made for a stronger and more engaging film. Ultimately, this warm tribute proves Loach is more national treasure than public enemy nowadays. When state-funded institutions like the BBC and BFI are making reverential documentaries about you, maybe you are no longer raging against the machine. You have become part of the machine yourself.

Production companies: Sixteen Films, BFI, BBC
Cast: Ken Loach, Cillian Murphy, Alan Parker, Gabriel Byrne, Nell Dunn, Paul Laverty
Director: Louise Osmond
Producer: Rebecca O’Brien
Cinematographer: Roger Chapman
Editor: Joby Gee
Composer: Roger Goula

Not rated, 93 minutes