We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
After dabbling in Spanish and Nicaraguan politics, respectively, with Land and Freedom and Carla’s Song, Ken Loach has returned to the British working-class heroes he knows best. Like the leftist director’s 1994 Ladybird, Ladybird, My Name Is Joe is the story of a dispossessed outsider engaged in a perpetual mutually unsatisfactory dance with U.K. social-service agencies. This is the sort of messy, class-conscious tale few Hollywood directors would attempt to spin. Still, the reason Americans can see the new film but had few opportunities to see its pricklier antecedentwhich never played in Washingtonis because its protagonist possesses one of the essential Hollywood virtues: charm.
Joe Kavanagh (Peter Mullan) is introduced just where the film’s title hints you’ll find him: at an AA meeting. The unemployed 37-year-old chronicles his newfound sobriety with passion, insight, and wit, and the soliloquy alone is probably worth the Best Actor award Mullan won at Cannes. Then he’s out on the streets of Glasgow, to meet his sensible friend Shanks (Gary Lewis); coach a soccer team of unemployed locals, including his vulnerable protégé, ex-junkie Liam (David McKay); and fall in love with Sarah (Louise Goodall), a warm but wary community health worker whose clients include the young son of Liam and his girlfriend, ex-hooker and not-quite-ex-junkie Sabine (Anne-Marie Kennedy).
Score another one for Hollywood: Joe and Sarah meet cute when they have a minor traffic altercation. She can handle his abuse, though, and soon agrees to let Joe and Shanks wallpaper her apartment. This job has its risks, because Joe and his friend have never done any wallpapering, and Joe could beand in fact isspotted by a dole worker who’ll inform on him for having unreported income. (Joe doesn’t make things any easier by angrily taking his paintbrush to the informant’s car.) The cost seems small, however, compared with the chance to get to know Sarah better.
The two begin a romance, but Joe (who has “fuck-all,” as he tells her) is more inclined to go head over heels than the stable, employed Sarahespecially after Joe admits he first went to AA in guilt over having beaten up his previous girlfriend. Sarah becomes even more reluctant to associate with Joe when she discerns that he’s made a deal to work as a courier for local heroin magnate McGowan (David Hayman) in order to protect Sabine and Liam, who are deeply in hock to the drug lord. At this point, Joe and Sarah’s relationship isn’t the only thing that’s threatened; so is My Name Is Joe’s status as a mean-streets romantic comedy.
Scripter Paul Laverty (who also wrote Carla’s Song) was inspired by a medical lecture where he learned that the residents of two different Glasgow postal codesone upscale, one downhad a 10-year gap in life expectancy. The film doesn’t trot out such statistics, but it’s grounded in the actuality of working-class Glasgow life. (One very un-Hollywood moment comes when Sarah matter-of-factly informs a group of new mothers to keep talcum powder out of their infant daughters’ vaginas.) As he usually does, Loach shot in actual locations and enlisted local residents (including clients of the Wanderers Unemployed Centre and footballers from Drumchapel Unemployed) as bit players. The final daub of local color is the dialogue, which is subtitled for clarity. Unlike in Loach’s Riff-Raff, which was also subtitled for U.S. release, the impediment is dialect rather than simply accents; the subtitled English could almost be considered a translation of the spoken Glaswegian.
With its cultural specificity and shifting disposition, My Name Is Joe is richer than its somewhat schematic script. It’s also more playful and engaging than its violent denouement, which fails to crush the sparkle of Mullan’s performance. The actor, who also appeared in Riff-Raff, played minor roles in the biggest recent films about the Scottish character, the bombastic Braveheart and the ultra-stylized Trainspotting, but here he trumps them both with a depiction of extraordinary determination in an ordinary setting.
In the end, Loach’s method is still mostly anti-Hollywood. Even though Joe is a much more admirable protagonist than Ladybird, Ladybird’s neglectful mom, there’s little glamour in his Glasgow. When Joe and Sarah make love, there’s no question of body doubles. Sex may offer brief transcendence, but romance seldom abides in neighborhoods where nearly every activity is against the law or at least off the books. In Loach’s films, neither love nor working-class spirit conquers all, but it’s the latter that makes the world go round.CP