Love in a Social Realist Climate

The art of love in the films of Ken Loach

It’s 15 years this month since the release of Ae Fond Kiss, the cross-cultural love story set in Glasgow directed by Ken Loach. Possibly seen as his most overtly romantic films, it continued a theme which features throughout his work but is often overlooked, the need for love and comfort. 

His collaborations with regular screenwriters, and in particular Paul Laverty, have produced thoughtful portrayals of everyday issues. The focus is inevitably on the social realism of his work, but from Poor Cow, My Name is Joe and Ladybird Ladybird, to Carla’s Song and The Angel’s Share, romance and the need for love drives his characters and highlights the very human struggle at the heart of his films.

Based on Nell Dunn’s novel of the same name, Poor Cow (1967) was Loach’s first feature film. It tells the story of 18-year-old Joy (Carol White), who makes a series of poor life choices, often in the name of love. She runs away from home to be with Tom (John Bindon), and they marry and have a son. But Tom is physically and emotionally abusive. When he’s sent to prison for armed robbery, she finds comfort in the arms of Dave (Terence Stamp) but the course of their love doesn’t run smooth as Joy is faced with tough decisions. Poor Cow is not an easy watch, with a heartbreakingly poignant performance by White.

Ladybird Ladybird is a 1994 film from Loach which on the surface feels like an unrelentingly grim tale of one woman’s spiral into desperate circumstances due to the action and inaction of the state, as she battles to keep custody of her children. Former stand up comedian Chrissy Rock gives an outstanding performance in the role of Maggie, and the film pulls no punches in its depiction of the experiences felt by many told through one woman’s story. Yet the film is told through the lens of the tender and loving relationship between Maggie and boyfriend Jorge (Vladimir Vega), who faces persecution in his home country of Paraguay. We learn about both their past lives in flashback as they begin to get to know each other, their intimate conversations driving the story, and the intensity of their need for comfort in each other laid bareas their relationship develops. 

Set in 1987 during the Contra War in Nicaragua, Carla’s Song (1996) tells a story of love at the heart of war, and the relationship between Scottish bus driver George (Robert Carlyle) and Carla (Oyanka Cabezas), a Nicaraguan refugee living in Glasgow. It’s clear that Carla has gone through trauma, and as George tries to help her, he agrees to go back to Nicaragua with her to piece together fragments of her shattered life and that of her ex-lover Antonio. The film uses the love story of George and Carla to navigate the often overlooked political and social story of mid 80s Nicaragua and the plight of those involved, and was the first collaboration between Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty. There is a similar theme of love and fragility amidst the trauma of battle in 1995’s passionate Land and Freedom.

In My Name is Joe (1998), love plays a major role in the attempted recovery and redemption of a man who wants to turn his life around. Peter Mullan stars as Joe Kavanagh, an unemployed recovering alcoholic in Glasgow, who meets and falls in love with a health visitor, Sarah (Louise Goodall). Again, the film is scripted by Paul Laverty, and you can feel the warmth and empathy in those scenes between Joe and Sarah. There is a sweetness, a nervousness, to the way Joe pursues her. He’s a man afraid of his past, and his future, and there is real depth and tenderness to the way their relationship is played out. But there are also barriers to break down, ones of class and lifestyle and the ability to trust, all of which are treated compassionately.

Another collaboration with Paul Laverty, starring Atta Yaqub and Eva Birthistle, Ae Fond Kiss (2004) explores the complications and reactions surrounding the love affair between a second-generation Scottish Pakistani Muslim man, Casim, and Roisin, a white Catholic woman from Ireland. The film’s title is taken from the song by Robert Burns, the complete line being “Ae Fond Kiss, and then we sever…” reflecting the bittersweet experience that their relationship brings. There is a warmth and humanity to the telling of their story, in many ways a modern interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, but there is a realism too. No Hollywood-esque hearts and flowers romance here, just the tender passion and intimacy of two people who need each other but know they ultimately can’t be together.

The Angel’s Share from 2012 is a sweet-natured comic heist film which evokes elements of Bill Forsyth’s That Sinking Feeling (1980) with its group of hapless young Scottish lads attempting to pull off a clever swizz at the expense of those who think they know better. This time it’s the whisky distillery business. Again, it’s set against the backdrop of a reality of youth unemployment and lack of opportunity, but there’s a wonderful spirit of optimism underpinning it. Another collaboration with Paul Laverty, at the heart of the story is Robbie (Paul Brannigan) who wants to do right by his heavily pregnant girlfriend Leonie (Siobhan Reilly). He’s determined to go straight and look after her and their baby, to be a good partner and father. There’s an innocence and old-fashioned romance to their relationship, and Robbie’s determination to provide security for his family in a way that neither of them experienced themselves.

Loach continues to produce films that focus on social justice and the very human fallout from political discourse and actions, but the effectiveness of those stories is strengthened by the focus on the relatable feelings and decisions we take in the name of love. By framing those stories with relationships at their core, they resonate more deeply.

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