BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: Ken Loach.

DESPITE his films being of quite eclectic subject matter, Ken Loach is primarily known for his kitchen-sink, social realism. He made his name with the controversial 60s TV movie Cathy Come Home, and since then has shown an empathy and understanding of everyday people’s struggles. His politics aren’t hard to decipher, and while the politics in The Navigators are obvious, the film’s success comes his almost exclusive focus on his protagonists and their increasing desperation with the way times have changed.

The film looks at a railway crew in Sheffield in the midst of privatisation on the British railways. Written by a former railwayman, Rob Dawber (who became unemployed post-privatisation and who died of lung cancer – caused by handling asbestos as a railwayman – before the film was released), the script pays great attention to establishing the men on the crew individually, and outlining their everyday battles with work, money, and their families. And while a person could be a railwayman for life in the old days, the new privatised days leads to job insecurity, short-cuts, and a compromising of safety. The script largely ignores the big bad corporates (a successful move, especially as the few scenes with the actual corporates feel a little flat) and instead focuses on the way the men interact among each other. The camaraderie and piss-taking feels entirely natural, and the story successfully conveys the banality of their work, and their subsequent situations. In effect, Loach manages to gain complete empathy with the characters without patronising or victimising them.

The Navigators shows the lengths that ordinary people get corrupted by such the system. It’s kind of like Wall Street, set among normal looking people. The utterly cruel but pitch perfect ending, in which the men’s desperation for work causes them to compromise their unity, is built up beautifully by the minute attention to the men’s struggles. Loach wisely gives his actors space, and their understated performances help carry the film. The aesthetic concerns are limited: simply, the visuals function to serve the story. Loach is more of a storyteller than an aesthete, not surprising given that the film was reportedly not even made for a cinematic release. Instead, it aims for the same kind of empathy and small scale drama in which he made his name back in the 60s. And Loach for the most part succeeds with, as he manages to wrench the little tragedies of little people and make them universal.