Review: ‘Kenneth Loach: Portrait’

A compact, intelligent look at the politically committed British filmmaker is the first in a projected series of TV-length docus each devoted to a contemporary helmer. Docu is leisurely, informative and a good introduction rather than a definitive or earth-shakingly revelatory portrait. TV and fest play are a given.

A compact, intelligent look at the politically committed British filmmaker, “Kenneth Loach: Portrait” is the first in a projected series of TV-length docus each devoted to a contemporary helmer. Faced with the impossibility of chronicling Loach’s twentysome television dramas, plentiful docus and 15 dramatic features, Loach specialist Philippe Pilard singles out a few representative pics and gives Loach and his steady collaborators a fair crack at describing why they work the way they do. Result is leisurely, informative and a good introduction rather than a definitive or earth-shakingly revelatory portrait. TV and fest play are a given.

It is fitting that a French director should tackle Loach since, as Loach’s longtime production manager Rebecca O’Brien puts it during a London interview, “Ken is better known in France than he is here.” Loach himself later states that “The French approach to cinema has made it possible for me to work at all.”

Never remotely strident, Loach simply states his heartfelt views, with concrete examples.

Loach, who grew up in the Midlands, not far from Stratford-on-Avon, says that seeing Shakespeare performed live was “the highlight of my childhood.” He was stage-struck at age 12 and set out to be an actor but, as he puts it, “failed rather miserably.” As for film, “The cinema was a place to take girls — it wasn’t an artistic experience at all,” he admits.

Loach attended Oxford on a grant that included his living expenses.

Loach says he ended up directing for television in the early days of the medium when “they were hiring more or less anybody.” Before long, Loach and his colleagues saw TV as “a political medium” — one that needed to move away from the stodgy staging of glorified filmed plays and “out into the streets in 16mm.”

Loach credits his “Kes” cameraman Chris Menges for helping him realize that the camera didn’t need to constantly follow the action but could be “calmer” and be allowed to observe. Longtime editor Jonathan Morris says although the budgets are never large, the two things Loach will never skimp on are raw stock and editing time.

D.p. Barry Ackroyd says Loach has always made “variations on the same film” the way a portrait painter such as Rembrandt or Van Gogh kept exploring the possibilities of a given theme. Morris insists that humor is a vital component of almost all of Loach’s work and shows a classic example from “Riff-Raff.”

Pic gives considerable attention to the fact that Loach always shoots in chronological sequence so that the actors are giving a continuous performance. Peter Mullan, who played the title character in “My Name Is Joe” says “I now know what it’s like to live in Russia under the KGB” — referring to the fact that thesps are only informed of the story piece by piece as they shoot.

The emotional authenticity of sequences is so core to Loach’s working method that film magazines and lenses are sometimes changed in mid-scene without interrupting the actors. Loach cherishes working with individuals who have never made a movie before, convinced they bring an innocence and freshness to the roles they play.

Loach also is adamant about the casting process and goes so far as to assert that “The moment you let someone else tell you who you have to have in the film, you’re no longer the director.”

Kenneth Loach: Portrait

France

Production

A CineCinema, CLC Prods., Compagnie Lyonnaise du Cinema production with participation of CNC. (International sales: Cine Classic, Paris.) Produced by Daniel Charrier. Directed by Philippe Pilard.

Crew

Camera (color), Yves-Michel Dumond, Denis White; editor, Edward Goldstein; music, George Fenton. Reviewed at Dinard Festival of British Cinema, France, Oct. 4, 2003. Running time: 52 MIN.

With

Ken Loach, Rebecca O'Brien, Barry Ackroyd, Paul Laverty, Jonathan Morris, Peter Mullan and Jean-Jacques Bernard, narrator. (Interviews in English, narration in French)
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