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My Name is Joe

Review by Sean Axmaker
Posted 22 January 1999

  Directed by Ken Loach

Starring Peter Mullan, Lousie Goodall,
Gary Lewis, Lorraine McIntosh,
David McKay, and Anne-Marie Kennedy

Screenplay by Paul Laverty

I love the films of Ken Loach. I know that, as the last of the socially conscious filmmakers around, he tends to dogma at times, and at his most politically ambitious he can overwhelm his stories in "big ideas," which makes him an easy target for critics. His two previous films, Carla’s Song and Land and Freedom, are prime examples, canvases so big and ideologically driven that many dismiss the entirety -- message, movie and all. Agree or not, Loach has a passion for his message and uses every tool at his disposal to get that message out.

But what I love about Loach’s films are not simply his "big ideas" but his acute observations of life among the poor and unemployed, and the vivid, raucous, dog-eared characters, men and women hanging on to hope to keep one up on despair and facing the world with their chin out. These people have been bruised and beaten and everyday is a struggle -- someone’s bound to take a swipe at that proud chin and they know it, but that’s not reason enough to stop trying. Loach wears his politics like a badge of honor, but it’s the heart hanging out on his worn sleeve that gives it meaning. Even his most didactic films (and admittedly they are few) come from a core of humanism, and his best work springs from his characters and radiate out.

 

My Name is Joe walks a close line between people and politics but stays grounded in character thanks largely to the warm, clear-eyed presence of Peter Mullan. His Joe Cavanaugh is a thick talking Glasgow bloke 10 months in AA trying to pull the shreds of his down-and-out life together with community service, soccer coaching, and his own form of philanthropy. His latest case is a lanky kid on his soccer team, Liam (David McKay), a reformed drug addict with a kid and a troubled wife, Sabine (Anne-Marie Kennedy). Ken is on the dole but squeaks by with unreported odd jobs, which gets him in trouble when a government snoop spies on him while he’s wallpapering the apartment of health counselor Sarah Downey (Louise Goodall). She too is working to help Liam and Sabine and subtle sparks ignite between the two good hearted souls -- she even writes a letter to the public assistance agency pledging that Joe did the work as a favor, not for payment (a lie to save Joe’s weekly check). Joe and Sarah are an unlikely couple: Joe a former street kid and recovering alcoholic living with a troubled past that periodically resurfaces in violent explosions, Sarah a

middle aged middle class professional so busy helping others she’s neglected her own life.

A product of the streets, Joe knows all too well how they can own you if make a wrong step and he soon discovers that his pal Liam is the thick of it. He’s done his time for dealing drugs and emerged from jail ready to do right by his family, but in his absence his debt to the local mob boss and drug lord McGowan (David Hayman) has spiraled out of control. Joe finds it within his power to prevent Liam from getting swept back into the gutter of street crime by performing a couple of easy jobs for McGowan, but his terms carry a hard penalty: Joe has to compromise his hard won ethical center. For Joe there’s no question -- a friend in trouble needs help -- but his decision also threatens to compromise his relationship with Sarah and his friendship with his best pal Shanks (Gary Lewis). Like a loose thread that begins to fray a shirt, this single compromise begins to fray the life he’s built up of the past 10 months and destroy everything he cares about.

Peter Mullan, who deservedly took home the award for Best Actor at Cannes in 1998, makes Joe a believably altruistic guy, financially down and out ("I’m 37 and look what I’ve got. Nuthin!") but as spiritually bright-eyed as one can be. With his just-another-bloke-at-the-bar-face (though better looking than most) Mullan’s deep brown eyes and plain face hide no enigmas -- he shows his emotions as clearly as he drives forward with his responsibilities. With no relations to speak of he’s made his blokes into his family; more than a coach to his soccer team, he becomes like a father to them. When he falls in love with Sarah he invests the relationship with the same heart and soul. Like a kid too inexperienced to flirt, he speaks his mind and opens his heart, which is a little scary for Sarah: too much, too fast, too unexpected. Louise Goodall hasn’t the luxury of exposing her past to the audience so she has to suggest where Mullan can share, and she does so marvelously. When Joe first asks her out she’s a giddy as a schoolgirl swapping secrets with her buddy and coworker Maggie (Lorraine McIntosh), excited and a little intimidated by the attention and adamant about turning him down. Loach’s punchline cut to the date (Joe takes her bowling -- it’s all he can afford) is standard stuff in most films but in the midst of Loach’s more rambling, impressionist style it’s hilarious, but before you know it he’s back into the loose, rangy, raw documentary style, letting the rhythms of the conversation and character drama drive the film. The combination of exhilaration and fear, hopes and hesitations, beautifully captures the dynamics of love the second time around between a woman uncertain of her future and a man given confidence by his triumph over his past.

As in his 1991 comedy Riff Raff the dialogue is subtitled -- between the thick-tongued street brogue and Scottish slang it comes in quite handy. This regional specificity is another element of Loach’s social realist approach that enriches his work. Shooting on the streets and in the apartments and pubs of Glasgow’s slums, Loach gets right into his world with the color (the visuals are light by a dull overcast gray throughout), the dumpy housing, the crowded health offices, the modest parks and soccer fields, and of course the people of the neighborhood (it’s almost shocking to find that most of the leads are in fact professional actors, so natural are they in this environment). He pegs the cacophony of group dynamics throughout the picture: a confrontation at the free clinic, a scuffle in a barroom, half a dozen guys all giving directions to Joe as he drives the soccer bus to an unknown destination. Whether it be strangers or pals, Loach captures the interactions like a fly on the wall in a documentary -- they feel so immediate, so real, that you can forget it’s a movie.

Where the film falters, not so surprisingly, is when the plot starts driving the characters. Mullan quite beautifully presents us with a Joe suddenly overwhelmed by a life he’s been able to keep under control, but otherwise Paul Laverty’s screenplay takes a turn that seems at odds with Loach’s sense of the characters. Until then it doesn’t even feel as if there is a screenplay. Loach has the ability to fold the script into the reality of the characters and their world and, through an improvisational reworking with his actors, bring it back out as a completely organic thing. But as the film winds down to into conflict with McGowan and Joe’s confrontation with his own dark side, the characters feel prisoners of some kind of destiny as written in the script, as if to make a point.

If I make this sound like a crippling flaw, it isn’t, merely a disappointment given the film up to that point. In it’s own way the developments of the last act are quite moving and dramatic, but perhaps better suited to another film. Even so, My Name is Joe is a moving, beautiful work that comes from the heart. If Loach’s weakness is his drive to show us the social ills that threaten the lives of the characters he’s so lovingly given us though the film, I’d say that’s one weakness the cinema could benefit from.


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