. CV has been a Ken Loach fan for some time now, remembering not only his films focused on the lives of working class people (Riff-Raff, Ladybird Ladybird) but also his fine Spanish Civil War movie, Land and Freedom. All of these films suffered the treatment afforded a great many high quality foreign films distributed in the United States: they were underpromoted and disappeared from the movie houses before they ever had a chance to find their audience.
Sadly, if the experience in San Francisco is typical, the same thing is happening to My Name is Joe, which opened in dreary Opera Plaza (tiny screens, tiny auditoria), lasted just a few weeks, and would have completely disappeared were it not for the Four Star, arguably the most courageous exhibitor in San Francisco. Now they are showing My Name is Joe and perhaps will be patient enough for word of mouth to spread so that the serious Bay area movie audience gets a chance to see a brilliant, moving film that is a new pinnacle of achievement for its director.
Loach has always been thoughtful, sympathetic to his downtrodden working class subjects, creating films about them that are based on solid characterization. This is all true of My Name is Joe, but Loach’s artistry has grown. This is his most structured, tightly plotted story to date. By the end of its hour and three-quarter length, it attains something like the stature of a classic tragedy, with the insights, pathos, and catharsis that such a label would imply.
Joe is a recovering alcoholic in Glasgow, a city whose high levels of unemployment, poverty, and drug addiction are becoming movie legend. Loach shows us the scrappy life of the have-nots, with the observant script by Paul Laverty picking up on the smaller things – intrusive bureaucrats for the social service system, public clinics, even the problem of where a guy with barely a pence to his name can take a girl on a date. He also shows us how economic deprivation and immersion in a drug infested community change values; survival transcends mainstream moral concerns.
We are led still further to see the deeply seamy side, the hard core addiction that breaks up families, forces a young mother into prostitution, and fosters a hardened and merciless gangster underworld. All of this unfolds within the context of Joe’s particular experience, as he tries to rebuild his life, meets a woman and falls in love. In our deepest heart we are rooting for this guy, who, for all his history in this environment, is a fundamentally decent person, self knowing and loyal to his friends. And, in our deepest heart, we also know that the brutal realities of poverty and drugs do not produce happy endings.
Peter Mullan won the best actor award at Cannes for his portrayal of Joe, an eminently deserved recognition for one of the finest performances on celluloid in recent years. This is a fully realized character whose pain doesn’t eradicate his sense of fun, whose smarts don’t prevent him from making mistakes, who has felt shame and disgust at his own misbehavior and tried to turn it around. Mullan has a combination of good looks, virility, and sensitivity all at once – a terrific package.
His love interest, nicely played by Louise Goodall, is a health educator/social worker. She says to him at one point, after he has confessed his greatest shame, "You’ve never forgiven yourself. I know about that as well." We believe her and we get a sense of her own vulnerabilities from her skillful performance, but here the script doesn’t fill us in on her history, a minor weakness. Their romance is credible, sexy, full of hope. If, in Hollywood, that would have been quite enough, in Glasgow it leads only to foreboding.