A bunch of working class heroes is celebrated in Ken Loach’s very timely “The Navigators.” In Britain, where the infrastructure of the once mighty British Railways is now so run down that it’s becoming a national scandal, pic is so up-to-the-minute that it’s bypassing theatrical release to make what is expected to be a controversial splash on public television in a couple of months. Elsewhere, festivals and niche markets, where the veteran filmmaker’s name is known, should take a risk with this small but heartfelt drama.
From the very beginning of his film career in the 1960s, Loach has explored the lives of working class men and women and has wholeheartedly taken their side against the Establishment and management; this film is no exception. Times are changing, and the British rail system, which was nationalized after WWII, was privatized again during the second half of the ’90s. The effects of this economically rationalist decision are shown all too clearly in the film, but without the need to shout slogans or indulge in heated rhetoric.
The screenplay, by ex-railway worker Rob Dawber, deals with men who work at a railway depot in South Yorkshire. Their job is to maintain the tracks and look after the safety of the railway passengers, but in 1995 this part of the rail system has been broken up and taken over by two different private companies. Men who have worked together for years are now on rival teams, working for companies out to make a profit at the expense of one another.
The new owners want nothing left of the old union system. As one makes it clear, unionists are considered troublemakers, nothing less, and the old, hard-fought agreements are torn up without discussion. The men have to like it or lump it. Some dejectedly take voluntary redundancy, while others decide to stick it out, but without the umbrella of holiday or sickness pay or any of the other deals the union won over the years.
The result is an almost instant drop in standards. Fewer men are employed in the maintenance department, and contract workers — with scant knowledge of the nature of the work they’re supposed to do — are brought in. Alongside all the personal heartbreak, this raises severe safety issues, resulting in a tragic accident.
Dawber, who died of a work-related illness before the completion of the film he scripted, clearly knew what he was writing about. Pic is completely convincing in all its details, and though the actors are clearly improvising in many scenes, the dialogue is rich and pure and often funny.
Indeed, Loach is able to make even the grimmest situation palatable thanks to his innate sense of humor. An early scene in which a low-level manager instructs the workers on the new rules and reads them a Mission Statement (“Mission Impossible,” responds one) is very amusing, thanks to the rich language (which shouldn’t pose problems for North American audiences) and to the natural, unaffected playing.
Domestic scenes involving families breaking up because of the strain being placed on the menfolk are included, but don’t take center stage in a film that’s primarily about the workplace. It makes for a very low-key, modest film, but an important one, and one to which audiences, given the chance, should certainly respond.
It’s difficult to single out any of the actors in such an ensemble piece; all the unfamiliar actors are perfectly cast and inhabit their roles with conviction. The camerawork, by Mike Eley and Barry Ackroyd, is functional but adequate, and a jazzy, bluesy music score by George Fenton, uncharacteristic for a Loach film, is a neat counterpoint to the realism of the drama.