The New Brutalism

On having a bad reaction to Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You

What brutal times are these? Leaving the cinema after viewing Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, the story of a northern English family sinking into poverty, I felt as if some deep and injured part of myself had been played out in front of me. Not only was I tasting a little of my own defeated past. I was being made witness to the worst that might still come. I won’t lie to you: Sorry We Missed You frightened me to the core. And it should frighten you too.

A masterpiece of social realist cinema from one of Britain’s finest directors, Sorry We Missed You has won reviews and awards that most filmmakers can only dream of. Yet its content feels so urgent, so desperate, the idea of it being great art feels trivial beside its depiction of those struggling and going under in today’s rampant free market economy.

If there have been any reservations, they are to do with the film’s devastatingly bleak ending, and criticisms its narrative may be too didactic. But I am here to say Sorry We Missed You is as true and accurate as any fly-on-the-wall documentary. It feels uncomfortable to even mention the actors’ names as there is no moment in the film where you feel anyone is acting at all. Many will recognise themselves in its telling, even if that recognition can only be traced through the thinnest of cracks in your own life. Cracks that Sorry We Missed You observes being steadily turned in chasms.

Ricky (Kris Hitchens) tries to make a delivery in Sorry We Missed You

The story of the film is simple enough. Ricky (Kris Hitchens) is a former construction worker whose life was blown apart by the financial crash of 2008. He’s had a run of “shitty jobs” since then and finally enters into “self-employment”, a “franchise” as a driver for a courier firm. Behind the marketing jive you immediately understand what’s going on: casualized labour in the ‘gig economy’, with plenty of pressures and minimal rights, all glammed up under the lie of “being your own boss”.

Ricky’s wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), is a home-care nurse. She sells her car so that Ricky can purchase a van and avoid the vehicle hire charges of the company that now employs him. Ricky’s bullet-headed boss Maloney (Ross Brewster) meanwhile assures him, “You don’t work for us, you work with us.”

Of course, it all starts going rapidly pear-shaped. Ricky’s promising delivery run is fraught with dud addresses, parking police, unhelpful customers, violent crime and impossible hourly deadlines. The entire set-up is built to harangue, bully and diminish self-worth, a veritable dream-crushing machine.

Without her car, Abbie must catch buses to reach her ‘clients’ (a term she hates) – the old and infirm, the senile, incontinent and disabled – scattered across the city of Newcastle. Working for a privatised home-care company, her visits are meant to last 15 minutes only. It’s demanding work, but the encounters also offer up oases of affection and kindness. These shine through Abbie’s daily struggles as much as they highlight the growing loneliness and isolation of a new and dysfunctional order.

Seb (Rhys Stone) and his mother Abbie (Debbie Haywood) in Sorry We Missed You

Ricky and Abbie’s teenage son, Seb (Rhys Stone), is addicted to his mobile phone, skipping school and going off the rails. He messes around with doing street graffiti, the only time he seems to have any right to self-expression or identity, not to mention a chance to have a little fun. Seb’s arguments with his father escalate to an intensity that is troublingly real, always around the device at his nose. Seb’s phone offer him an escape from how bad things are; his acts of graffiti are the mostly positive side to a kind of self-vandalism that is the by-product of a family cracking at the seams. Hope is something he scorns as a fantasy; a scorn that acts like an acid on his father’s fight to survive in the new delivery job he has found.

Seb’s 11-year-old sister, Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) is so weighted down by worry she has started wetting the bed, all the while she behaves like a carer for her mother and father and brother. Hers is one of the most brilliant child performances I have seen in the cinema, all the greater for how understated and almost unintentional it seems.

Despite the toxic atmosphere, these are decent, hard-working people. This is a good, intelligent family – not some cartoon underclass horror story whose destiny is written in low character and uneducated attitudes. Things should be better for them. Instead, they are being destroyed by indifferent and exploitative employers, a lack of secure housing, and the overwhelming cut and thrust of surveillance capitalism. Every phone call to Abbie, every beep of Ricky’s scanner, is like a noose being tightened. Each minute of their day is measured and taken from them till no moment of their own exists.

Maloney (Ross Brewster) lets Ricky know who is boss in Sorry We Missed You

It’s possibly easy to inoculate yourself to this film by seeing it as just another portrait of austerity England, that drab, faraway land with its Dickensian housing estates and cobbled, Coronation Street claustrophobia. I meanwhile think back to not so long ago, appalled as I sat and watched an ABC report on families living in their cars in the USA – thinking how lucky I was to live here in a country that valued social justice and welfare. How foolish I was.

In Sorry We Missed You, the truth is being laid bare: we used to be a society, but now we are an economy. Writer Paul Laverty interviewed courier drivers and home-care nurses, went with them on their duties, to get all the details and conditions they work under absolutely right. What Laverty maps is happening in much the same way here.

Currently there are three million Australians living below the poverty line. Over 700,000 of them are officially unemployed, recipients of Newstart (baseline payment $278 a week) or the Youth Allowance ($228 a week). There’s a lot of piping on by politicians about rental assistance and other bonuses, but they don’t add up to much. 

Let me give you my own case study of being on Newstart from late 2018 into early 2019. With rental allowance included, I qualified for $695 a fortnight. Of that, I paid out $680 a fortnight for a one-bedroom place in inner Sydney, a cheap rent by the city’s grotesque standards. This left me $15 a fortnight to function on, including all food and bills and transport costs, as well as coping with my three children coming to stay for one half of the holidays and one third of the rest of the time. Not to mention my ‘contract’ with a job provider, demanding I seek out 20 jobs a month and attend regular supervisory appointments. This is the kind of welfare net that pushes people to breakdown, failure and ‘non-compliance’ penalties. You get out if you can, or you kill yourself trying.

Why these savage, even abusive conditions? Why the adoption of brutal methods and welfare approaches from the USA and the UK? 

The answer lies in the lower end of an equally savage and abusive labour market that Sorry We Missed You depicts so well. In a deregulated and expanding gig economy, people are required to work like rats on a digital treadmill in growth industries like the delivery services, call centres, and aged and disability care. You put up with the bad conditions and the low wages out of fear. Fear of being returned to a welfare situation you know is much worse. Fear of losing what little you have. A fear economy that is generated to oil the gears of a social restructuring the likes of which we are yet to fully recognise until developments in AI and technology tllt nearer to a quarter of the population out of their old jobs. Only then will people really ‘get’ what is happening.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics meanwhile identifies people with as little as one hour a week’s work as ‘employed’. It’s thought the official unemployment figures of 700,000 plus – floating between at around 5.2% of the working population – is much higher. The truth of how bad things are going is being hidden inside a vast economic fudging game that looks good on paper and plays out very differently in reality. Just start by thinking about how many people there are these days on the road riding bicycles and delivering food. Where did they all come from suddenly?

It’s known that two thirds of those three million currently living below the poverty line in Australia do have jobs. Many have two, even three jobs, as they try to make ends meet. The Foodbank Hunger Report 2019 meanwhile indicates four million people have experienced food insecurity in this last year. 22% of them were children. 

Back in 2017, 48% of those people who battled to put food on the table were employed. In 2018, 51% were employed. In 2019, 53% of them were employed. It’s a worrying trend: more and more people with jobs are having trouble feeding themselves and their families. But here is your takeaway: working and going hungry are now a commonplace.

I count myself lucky after my own experiences. Apart from freelance journalism, I have a part-time job at the Addison Road Community Centre Organisation in Marrickville. It runs an operation called The Food Pantry. A super low-cost store for people in need, The Food Pantry relies on its food rescue program – saving perfectly good food from being wasted and thrown into landfill – and donor support. It is now seeing over 750 people a week coming through its doors. Double the numbers from only a year previous. Anecdotally, about two thirds of them are known to be shopping for their families or households, which leads The Food Pantry to conservatively estimate it is helping to feed between 1500 and 2000 people every week in the supposedly gentrified and wealthy Inner West of Sydney.

Most of those coming in are struggling with the low rate of Newstart, a payment that has not risen in real terms for a quarter of a century. The other main cohort is people trapped in unreliable, low paying, and casual employment. One of the biggest pressures on people is rental stress. Almost everyone is frightened of maintaining a roof over their heads. Homelessness is perpetually one bad jolt away. 

Now, mortgage stress is beginning to change our customer demographic. We are seeing people at The Food Pantry who appear to be capital rich, but cash poor. People who suddenly find themselves in trouble because of an unexpected job loss, illness or relationship break-up. Nice house, nice car, all of it up for grabs.

I walk King Street in Newtown after seeing Sorry We Missed You and reflect on its closing images of a good man and a good woman, their son and their daughter, all being shredded apart by this new economy. Fine, noble human beings annihilated for what? It is a suffering I can relate to – and not something I have any easy answers for other than an appreciation for the raw and terrifying truth the film does not shirk from telling. It’s not just the economic destruction that is troubling, either; it’s the crushing of the human soul itself.

A memory that is almost sweet comes to me, pulling me back to my work at Addison Road Community Organisation. A well-dressed woman and her children have come into The Food Pantry. We are fortunate that week to have quality ice creams from a donor. The woman’s young boy points them out in excitement and looks up at her and says, “Look mum. Ice cream. We can live like we used to before.”

Story by Mark Mordue ©

Director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty