Ken Loach’s latest masterwork is titled Sorry We Missed You, which refers to the card left behind by FedEx-type package deliverers when the addressee is unavailable. The film opens with a scene where Ricky (Kris Hitchen) is interviewing for such a job. Watch how much we learn about Ricky from this stretch. That he used to do building works, roofing, flooring, even drainage work. That he gave it up because “it gets a bit much after freezing your balls off every winter”. (It’s also a fallout of the 2008 economic crash.) That he’s never been on the dole, a fact that impresses the interviewer, Maloney (Ross Brewster), the manager of the facility. We also learn about the company. The language Maloney speaks is dehumanised, which could be another word for “corporate-ese”. There’s no wages; there’s “fees”. There’s no joining the company; it’s called “onboarding”. We hear terms like “precisors”, which are packages that have to be delivered in a precise, one-hour window. What Maloney doesn’t tell Ricky is worse. For instance, Ricky had better keep a plastic bottle with him for pissing in, in case there’s no time for a rest stop.
In short, this is another Loach-ian slice of the working class, which includes Ricky’s wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), too. She is a nurse, a “carer” who visits the elderly and the disabled, and makes sure they are bathed and have their meals and medication. For a while, the film keeps alternating between the couple. We see Ricky at work. We see Abbie at work. We see Ricky at work. We see Abbie at work. On one level, the repetition is intended to make us feel the deadening monotony of their days. But we also get to know every aspect of what their work entails. We are living their lives with them, not just getting a set of artfully curated moments.
And through Abbie’s work, we get insights into her. If she seems excessively devoted to the older women she ministers to (one of them combs her hair), it’s possibly because she lost her mother a while ago and still misses her and sees these women as a temporary substitute. We also see the effect of Ricky’s and Abbie’s work on their kids. Usually, neglected kids in the movies are a result of workaholic parents, those who want to work — but here, Ricky and Abbie need to work. The daughter, Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), takes it in her stride. But her older brother, Seb (Rhys Stone), is the archetypal troubled kid. He’s slipping at school. He sees his parents and he doesn’t want that life. But he doesn’t want to go to “Uni” either and end up neck-deep in debt.
As always, Loach’s humanism indicts the System rather than those who implement its rules. Take Maloney, the thorn in Ricky’s flesh and the ostensible villain of the piece. He’s hard on his men, but then he has to be that way because time is monetised. The company rewards those who meet (and even overshoot) targets. (Think of the Ola/Uber drivers around you.) But it doesn’t work the same way for everyone. Abbie’s time is not monetised. She is not paid per hour, but instead per visit, no matter how long it takes and no matter if she has to do something extra, like clean up the shit after one of her clients has an accident. The line of the movie? One of Abbie’s clients looks at her schedule and remarks, “It’s 7.30 in the morning to 9 at night. Whatever happened to the 8-hour day?” It’s a question many of us are asking.
Sorry We Missed You is an especially important movie in the Amazon (or Swiggy or whatever) era, where we expect prompt service and (indirectly, inadvertently) put extra pressure on people like Ricky. “I never thought it would be this difficult,” Ricky says. He’s talking about this job. He’s talking about their life. Abbie has dreams of sinking in quicksand. “The more hours and work we do, we sink more and more.” (Every single actor is exceptional.) There are lighter moments, like when the family drives Abbie to work, with laughs and songs along the way — but these are the exceptions. None of this is laid on thick. It all rises organically from the foundation Loach and his superb writer (Paul Laverty) lay out. It’s drama, not melodrama. There’s just one development that made me wince, when Ricky is attacked by punks and left badly bruised. This looked like melodrama, pushing the tragedy further when we’ve already been through the wringer — but the subsequent scenes are important and meaningful, and they flatten this spike of emotion to drama again. This incident affects not just Ricky, but Seb and Liza Jane and especially Abbie. She’s been a saint, a pillar of patience this far, and this latest twist of fate pushes her over the edge. She loses it. The whole theatre applauded. It’s when you know how deeply the film has gotten into your bones. You don’t just watch Sorry We Missed You. You take it home with you.