Dir Ken Loach. UK-Germany-Spain-Italian-French. 95 mins.

Propagating the cause of the working class, Ken Loach's politics are in the right place - but that doesn't necessarily result in powerful film-making, as is evident from The Navigators, his latest foray into left-of-centre ideology, which this time examines the privatisation of the British railways and its devastating effects on its workers. On the plus side, the new feature is certainly better and more substantial than Bread And Roses, Loach's agit-prop piece about Los Angeles' janitors, which premiered in Cannes last year, but is not nearly as poignant or accomplished as Riff Raff, arguably Loach's last strong picture in a decade. It remains to be seen what the reaction will be to The Navigators, when it airs on Britain's public TV station Channel Four in early December (after a two-week theatrical preview in Sheffield in November), a novel experiment for a Loach film. Theatrically speaking, prospects for US distribution are iffy, considering the lack of commercial interest in his films by American viewers. That said, Loach is a world name director, whose films have always played the global festival circuit and specialised markets, particularly in Europe: already it has taken $404,500 after 17 days from a 45-screen release in Italy.

The most significant story related to The Navigators is not even on screen. According to the press notes, first-time screenwriter Rob Dawber, who based his script on his long-time personal experience as a British railways employee, died shortly after the shoot was over, as a result of mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, while working on the rails.

As a film-maker, Loach continues to show commitment to stark, socially-conscious gritty dramas that feature non-professional players, or actors who don't look like actors. Very much in this vein, The Navigators is a low-key, ultra-modest film that pays tribute to the heroic stature of a group of rail workers, based at a depot in South Yorkshire, northern England, whose lives are devastated by the privatisation of the British rail system. In an early scene, Harpic (Sean Glenn), the depot supervisor instructs his workers on the new rules by reading them a mission statement (dubbed by them "mission impossible"). Despite is severe implications, the scene is amusing due to the rich lingo used as well as the natural, unaffected acting, which characterises the entire ensemble.

United as a gang, the members have basically one choice: to take voluntary redundancy and be employed as casual agency workers, or to accept the new company and its harsh rules, which preclude paid holidays and other elementary benefits. Since the old union has been broken up into different private organisations, the men, who have worked together for years, often find themselves as members of rival teams. Furthermore, under the new capitalistic regime, fewer men are needed in maintenance, and daily contract workers are hired from the outside. A new, rather careless safety policy endangers the men's lives and, indeed, results in a tragic accident.

Although The Navigators is mostly concerned with the workplace, it doesn't neglect the workers' personal lives. In the background there's plenty of domestic drama, with families and marriages collapsing under the unbearable strain. It's a tribute to Loach's humanist doctrine that he is able to make even the grimmest situation palatable, due to his light directorial touch and the basic decency of his characters. The humour that resides in the dialogue, which is funny and always realistic, derives directly from the men's routine conversations.

Casting The Navigators with unfamiliar faces is a major plus, lending the story the necessary authenticity and credibility, although it also makes it harder to distinguish among the various members. True to the film's collectivist spirit, Loach clearly favours a group portrait under socio-economic pressure, rather than sharply delineated individual characterisations.

For the soundtrack, Loach has uncharacteristically selected a jazzy score by George Fenton, which is used as a counterpoint to drama, although it often calls too much attention to itself.

British audiences will be intrigued and even touched by the timeliness of the issue addressed by Loach. Probably out of respect for his protagonists, the director refuses to punch the story or add to it a stronger melodramatic layer, as he did in Riff Raff, a film that also celebrated the survivalism and dignity of the British working class, but centred on one flawed hero (superbly played by Robert Carlyle), a construction worker and ex-prisoner anxious to escape his past and begin a new life. These elements are missing from the new tale, and non-UK viewers might feel that, important as its subject is, The Navigators is slightly too familiar a picture in Loach's impressive four-decade career.

Prod co: Parallax Pictures
UK dist: BFI
Int'l sales: The Sales Co
Prod: Rebecca O'Brien
Co-prod: Ulrich Felsberg
Scr: Rob Dawber
Cinematographer: Mike Eley, Barry Ackroyd
Prod design: Martin Johnson
Ed: Jonathan Morris
Music: George Fenton
Main cast: Dean Andrews, Tom Craig, Joe Duttine, Steve Huison, Venn Tracey, Juliet Bates, Angela Saville