Emotionally dense, often moving but finally flawed by a lack of focus, "My Name Is Joe" is more boilerplate-British Ken Loach than the fully realized excursion to new territory promised by its opening.

Emotionally dense, often moving but finally flawed by a lack of focus, “My Name Is Joe” is more boilerplate-British Ken Loach than the fully realized excursion to new territory promised by its opening. After the foreign-set and overtly political sagas of “Land and Freedom” and “Carla’s Song,” this Glasgow-set tale of working-class characters caught in a downward spiral of their own and society’s weaknesses looks like it will please the helmer’s aficionados but still will be a tough sell beyond specialized venues.

Though some of the material here is among the best work Loach has done to date, pic is heavily handicapped for Anglo markets by a soundtrack that makes no concessions in its thick Scottish accents, which render a major part of the dialogue well nigh incomprehensible to North American ears and even a tough ride for Brits south of the border. Pic world-preemed at Cannes sans a U.K. or U.S. distrib deal in place.

The film was directly inspired by the first half of “Carla’s Song,” also set in Scotland’s biggest city and with a script by Paul Laverty, a former lawyer. Result is a multifaceted portrait of one of Glasgow’s toughest and most deprived neighborhoods, Ruchill, seasoned with a love story between two mature people and spiced with a small number of secondary characters who reflect aspects of the metropolis’ social tapestry.

Joe Kavanagh (Peter Mullan) is a reformed alcoholic, 10 months off the sauce, who’s first seen addressing an AA meeting. Unemployed, he whiles away his time doing odd jobs for cash and trying to run a chaotic, no-hope soccer team, among whose players is Liam (David McKay), who owes a tidy sum to local hood McGowan (David Hayman). Liam’s partner, Sabine (Annemarie Kennedy), is a junkie who’s trying to raise their small son, Scott.

Opening scenes of Joe carousing with his pals have an easy, laddish atmosphere that soon disappears when, by chance, he meets Sarah (Louise Goodall). She’s also an unattached thirtysomething, with a similar sense of fun behind the professional exterior of a community health worker. Joe offers to help her wallpaper her apartment and drags along his best buddy, Shanks (Gary Lewis), to help.

When the job gets him into trouble with the local unemployment office, Sarah goes out on a limb to cover for him, and soon a cautious romance develops between the two, charted in a series of charming scenes.

Types like Joe are no strangers to Sarah, whose work puts her on the front-line of Glasgow’s drug- and crime-riddled underbelly, yet she’s won over when Joe comes clean to her about his rowdy, often violent past. But when a sense of responsibility leads him to do one final job for McGowan to get Liam off the hook, the news puts a major strain on his relationship with Sarah, who’s now, unknown to him, pregnant.

Pic’s first half-hour, as it settles on Joe and Sarah’s stumbling romance, is among the best work that Loach has done, full of emotional grace notes and warm, humorous observations that immediately draw the viewer in. One scene, in which Sarah’s work colleague (Lorraine McIntosh) plays a small but crucial role in furthering the pair’s relationship, is heart-stoppingly moving and shows the depth of emotion already built up by that early point.

But just when the pic seems ready to explore new ground in Loach’s career, it retreats, pulling the love story from center stage. Though by that time we already have a fair idea of Joe’s emotional history, Sarah’s character remains stalled in terms of backgrounding, and more reactive to events than a full player. Though we sense a history of a badly broken heart, we learn almost nothing more about her as the movie progresses.

Laverty’s script never resolves this central weakness, and pic becomes progressively tougher and more detached as criminal and social elements take over in deciding the couple’s fate. (Later scenes of Sabine and Liam’s travails often recall helmer’s “Ladybird Ladybird” in their raw emotional power.) In the final reels, there are problems reconciling the script’s characterizations and plotting elements.

That’s a pity, as Mullan and Goodall (the latter from “Carla’s Song”) have strong presences and generate marvelous chemistry together. Mullan is perfect as the twinkly-eyed Joe, whose charm conceals darker depths of despair and self-shame; as the strong-willed social worker who’s still prepared to take a chance, Goodall is equally involving. Other roles are typically well cast, with Hayman (also a director in his own right) bringing a smooth sense of power and menace to his role of McGowan.

D.p. Barry Ackroyd, a Loach regular since “Riff-Raff” and one of Blighty’s ace lensers, gives the pic a clean, slightly hard-edged look, with trademark use of strong, single light sources in interiors that bring a steely edge to scenes of emotional conflict. George Fenton’s music is only OK, running the gamut from classical source music to regulation atmosphere builders, and Jonathan Morris’ cutting is admirably tight.

My Name Is Joe

Production

A Parallax Pictures (U.K.)/Road Movies Vierte Prod. production, with support of the Scottish Arts Council National Lottery Fund, the Glasgow Film Fund and Filmstiftung NRW, in collaboration with Channel Four Films, WDR/Arte/La Sept Cinema, ARD/Degeto Film and BIM Distribuzione, Diaphana Distribution and Tornasol/Alta Films. (International sales: the Sales Co., London.) Produced by Rebecca O'Brien. Executive producer, Ulrich Felsberg. Directed by Ken Loach. Screenplay, Paul Laverty.

With

Joe Kavanagh - Peter Mullan Sarah Downie - Louise Goodall Liam - David McKay Sabine - Annemarie Kennedy McGowan - David Hayman Shanks - Gary Lewis Maggie - Lorraine McIntosh
Camera (color), Barry Ackroyd; editor, Jonathan Morris; music, George Fenton; production designer, Martin Johnson; art director, Fergus Clegg; costume designer, Rhona Russell; sound (Dolby Digital), Ray Beckett, John Hayward; assistant director, David Gilchrist; casting, Gillian Berrie, Steven Mochrie. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 15, 1998. Running time: 105 MIN.

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