2001; directed by Ken Loach; written by Rob Dawber; 92 mins
Here’s a Ken Loach film that has become more and more relevant as the years have gone by. In an increasingly capitalistic, post-recession world, it looks more and more like a warning from history. To watch Loach’s films is to see a portrait of post-war British life, albeit one that is of a singular left wing bent, but a rare filmic portrait of life at the bottom nonetheless. With The Navigators, we have a transitional film, where the communities and work-forces of his earlier film and TV work (The Big Flame, The Price of Coal) are systematically stripped away to become the lonely, defeated individuals of I, Daniel Blake and Sweet Sixteen.
Set in 1995, during the Major years, a South Yorkshire rail depot is taken over by a private company. It’s workers – in particular Gerry, Mick, Paul, John and Jim – are gradually given the ‘choice’ of not-really-working at a failing depot or leaving to work for recruitment agencies where their skills mean nothing and they have no protection, financially or otherwise.
The real brilliance of the story is that Loach and late railwayman/writer Rob Dawber have taken about the driest subject matter (the privatisation of British Rail) and turned it into an accessible, intelligent, engaging drama about ordinary people. It’s not formally inventive at all, in fact, this is about as low-key and familiar as they get but Loach is about addressing the issues head-on rather than distracting us with directorial bullshit.
This film shows that moment when workers who were concerned about doing their job properly were labelled as troublemakers. When skilled labour became a job that, apparently, any monkey could do. Mick’s time working for the recruitment agency goes rapidly downhill when he first won’t tow the line over a sloppily managed job shifting sleepers. Soon, he can’t get any work because employers have dobbed him in to the agency. The agency don’t want a bad name so they penalise him, so Mick – and incrementally, all the rest of the lads – is forced to compromise and do his job badly because of the “customer” and the “marketplace”.
On a character level, Tory-lovechild/managing-director, Hemmings is possibly the most disturbing Loach antagonist. Whilst only in a couple of scenes, his spectre hangs over the whole film. He is first seen delivering platitudes via some patronisingly trendy video propaganda to a roomful of bored rail workers and then threatening depot management with immediate sacking if anyone disagrees with new policy. This guy is the progenitor of all the zero-hour contracts, cessation of bonuses and every fucking speech we’ve all had from people with money telling us we’d work for free if we were “really passionate”!
Despite the anger, as with all Loach films, there is a lot of humour (particularly the saga of the sardines) and an unyielding wellspring of humanity. These men have home lives and through that, we are forced to consider the very immediate consequences of their already compromised situations in a way that their employers aren’t.