Ken Loach has made Cannes history with his 11th film in competition this year, so why don’t the UK media and industry revere him as they should?
No director has been in competition at Cannes more times than Ken Loach. Between 1981 and 2010, he had ten films play in the film world’s most coveted competitive lineup, winning in 2006 for The Wind That Shakes The Barley. With The Angels’ Share selected this year, that makes it 11.
Loach doesn’t really get his due in his native UK where London-centric critics and media tend to take him for granted. In an era when international-style British films like We Need To Talk About Kevin, Shame and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy hog the limelight, Loach’s unswerving integrity and his fascination with contemporary life and working class heroes feels outdated to some.
There’s an ennui in the UK both inside the industry, in the media and audiences with a certain type of British film. The perception is of bleak stories of underprivileged folk living in council estates and flirting with crime. Loach is often cited in this conversation as a propagator of these worthy films, yet this assumption is both unfair and untrue. His films are filled with humour – despite their often tough subject matter – and he has made comedies like Looking For Eric and the new film The Angels’ Share which are as light as air. He has made gripping thrillers (Hidden Agenda, Route Irish) and period epics (Land And Freedom, The Wind That Shakes The Barley) as well as the character-driven dramas for which he is most famous. Yes his films are always political to some extent, but he is among the most versatile of all directors and the idea that he makes the same film every time out is absurd.
Perhaps even more off-putting to the London crowd is the fact that many of Loach’s stories – apart from the two period films and the LA-set Bread And Roses - are set outside London. The Angels’ Share is his fifth to be set in Scotland after Carla’s Song, My Name Is Joe, Sweet Sixteen and Ae Fond Kiss. Looking For Eric was in Manchester, Route Irish in Liverpool, The Navigators in Yorkshire. And the interest in regional settings and characters goes on as you work your way back through his filmography. Plenty have been set in London (Poor Cow and Cathy Come Home among them) but Loach and his current writing partner Paul Laverty haven’t been in London since It’s A Free World in 2007.
Like many countries, the UK has a knack of downplaying its greatest artists. Spain does it with Pedro Almodovar, apparently oblivious to his reputation as a legend the world over. It’s a habit countries have of knocking down their titans.
Loach’s producer Rebecca O’Brien now gets his films principally financed in France where he is revered. Directors around the world, Steven Soderbergh, the Coen Brothers and the Dardenne Brothers among them, are perennially vocal about the influence he has exerted on their work.
It’s not easy to get selected into Cannes competition and, contrary to popular opinion, nobody is ever guaranteed a slot. So as the 75-year-old Loach cruises into Cannes history, two films in competition ahead of other oft-selected directors Carlos Saura, Lars Von Trier and Wim Wenders with nine films apiece, and far ahead of other Brits like Powell, Lean, Lindsay Anderson or Roeg, perhaps it’s time for the UK media and public to understand and acknowledge Loach’s staggering achievements on the world stage.