Riff-Raff (Loach, 1991)

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Alex: 

I chose Riff-Raff due to Ken Loach’s new film, I, Daniel Blake, being in cinemas at the moment. I hoped to see the new release before we spoke about Riff-Raff but when I went to see it, it was sold out; “make sure you get tickets for the later viewing, it’s a great film and it’s important you watch it,” shouted the guy working in the cinema.

There seems to be an exciting buzz around Loach’s most recent film, but anyway, Riff Raff: This is a comedy set on a building site in London, though you wouldn’t be able to tell from its workers- they span the length and breadth of the country. Robert Carlyle leads an entertaining cast and is one of many recognisable actors in early performances, including Peter Mullan and Ricky Tomlinson, with the latter playing a highly politicised scouser, who finally gets the boot from the site for opening his mouth too much. The film is, like Tomlinson’s character, unashamedly political; “No one should be without a home in the 1990’s,” proclaims Tomlinson after offering Carlyle’s Stevie a squat as one of his colleagues answers, “he only wants a friggin’ squat”. I would be inclined to tell Loach, “all I wanted was to watch a friggin’ film” IF the characters weren’t such good company and the love story at the centre so sweet.

The sad thing about watching this film in 2016, 25 years after its release, is that the political climate that this film is set in – a very right tory government lead by a stern female, a fight for jobs, and an overall dissatisfied general public – is far too recognisable to the country I live in today. In spite of that I find the film surprisingly light and warm in the centre.

What do you think? Have you seen I, Daniel Blake? Oh, and what do you think of Loach doing the wind swept ashes set piece 8 years before the Coen brothers!?

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Luke:

Ok, so I should start by saying that these social-commentary, politically-motivated films are often hit and miss with me. It’s just a matter of personal taste. Sometimes, they are too real and close to the world I see around me as a working-class man, and without actually pointing towards a solution to what it is commentating on, or providing something new in it’s take on a bitter reality, I struggle to stay the whole 90 minutes or so.

So, Riff-Raff. This is not a visually appetising film, but that’s not why you watch a film like this. You watch it for the characters, the story and for the feeling it gives you. Loach is the OG when it comes to crafting real characters. The world and people he has framed here are people I see every day in my life. There is sometimes a problem with that: I don’t always care for these people, and I certainly don’t always want to watch them for the duration of a feature film. That being said, the gang of labourers we are introduced to in Riff-Raff are very entertaining and kept a grip on my attention throughout. And who does’t love Ricky Tomlinson… However, I didn’t feel the same about Emer McCourt’s Susan. I didn’t enjoy the actress, found her portrayal very 2D and vapid but perhaps, again, this is just my opinion on a real person.

In terms of the humour in this, I found myself shifting from not enjoying this typical brand of working-class banter to laughing-out-loud at some genuinely hilarious moments. The wind swept ashes scene, in particular, was brilliant and a shock to see it come so long before the similar Big Lebowski one. It’s true what they say, so much of filmmaking is just stealing from what came before.

I had a few problems with the film but I want to first say, it is a well-crafted, intelligent and important film, and, as you say, absolutely relevant today. However, I found some of these working-class characters bordering on pastiche (“The geezer, on the blower,” says Mick ,the ganger, and a cockney funnily enough…) but maybe this is just a problem with me; maybe these people do exist and I just don’t want to watch them for an hour and a half. There is also a massive lack of subtly with the film and I think it really needed it.

The film throws its politics in your face even though its very nature tells you all you need to know about its position on the government. And then there’s the, in my opinion, misguided final act: the heroin subplot, the near death fall (I really liked the idea of it, especially after all the build up on the lack of health and safety measures, but did not enjoy the execution), and the blazing inferno in the final scene. The last 30-40 minutes or so felt out of place in the film and, Susan’s sudden heroin addiction in particular, a bit ridiculous.

I haven’t seen I, Daniel Blake. It’s definitely on my list but it’s a long list. Were there any problems with this film for you or was it pretty much perfect? 

Alex:

Let’s do this one at a time: firstly, I agree no one is going to describe Loach as subtle but don’t you think it’s important that these kinds of political films are made? They serve as a time capsule. Watching this film today, we can look at it and compare it with the world we live in today, and see how past mistakes are being made again. Surely cinema can serve as more than just escapism, this also refers to your comments about how some of the characters rubbed you up the wrong way because they are like people you know. I would of thought that you’d be happy that characters like you, from similar places are being represented on film, not just Ryan Gosling and George Clooney. Also, a side point; I work on a building site just like this and if only the people I see day-to-day were as kind, funny and had a sense of community as the people in this film.

I’m surprised you didn’t like McCourt’s portrayal of Susan, as I really enjoyed this quite raw performance. I found the character to be sweet, hopeless and identifiable.

Finally, I do understand your reservations with the final third of the film: I agree the introduction of addiction was quite fleeting (but I suppose it can be in real life too) and I felt that the relationship between Stevie and Susan was sidelined. However, I feel the fall from the scaffolding, and burning down of the site, were 100 % necessary in completing the metaphor of the film: the site supervisor decided not to invest money into the site (to make it safer) and because of this, the character with the biggest dreams on site (to visit Africa) pays as he falls to either death or life changing injuries. I read this as being an indictment on the idea of austerity, leaving the conclusion that spending money creates better opportunities for everyone. Then the workers revolt  by the only way they can think of, which in turn means shooting themselves in the foot by destroying their only source of income. Just like the images that bookend the film, the characters feel like rats living amongst the rubble of a country demolishing itself.

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Luke:

In terms of the characters, for the most part I liked them but again personally I’ve seen these types of characters represented over and over, and I just feel that the ‘common man’ is a lot more diverse than offered here. Sometimes, I felt a few of the characters bordered more on caricature or ideas rather than actual people. Again though, I can’t stress enough how much I enjoy Tomlinson, and Carlyle too was excellent. I also appreciated that not everyone comes off well here. Not everyone is a good guy (particularly the guy who stomps on the baby rats, that was heartbreaking… RIP baby rats).

My problem with some of the elements in the final act weren’t so much the idea of them – you’re right they are a logical and necessary conclusion to the overall arc of the story – but the execution felt a bit heavy-handed and out of touch with the rest of the film. The ‘scaffolding fall’ scene at times felt like an episode of casualty to me (“What’s wrong with that!” My mum yells) but perhaps this is a combination of the sensibilities of the time and the budget of the production. However, I would argue to that that citing limitations is a poor excuse but I’m not here to argue myself.

I appreciated the bookended images of the rats amongst the rubble; another shout out to the political message of course but one more to my taste. I would welcome more of that type of approach.

I enjoyed a lot about the film but felt it was one of the weaker Loach films I’ve seen (and, admittedly, that’s not nearly enough). Where does it rank for you?

Alex:

I’ve only seen this, Kes and Sweet Sixteen. It would be hard for me to put Riff Raff above either of these but that isn’t saying much.

I definitely share your view that the film looks TV-ish, I know Loach cut his teeth making TV. In that sense I wouldn’t call the film cinematic but this doesn’t bother me – me and your mum can sit in and watch casualty anytime!

I think the film balanced realism and metaphor really nicely. What do you feel were the overall political messages of the film?

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Luke:

This is a very left-leaning, anti-Thatcher film, and it’s interesting that it comes at the end of her reign (her final year as Prime Minister was in 1990) allowing it to serve as a look at her legacy and the consequences of her time in power. There is a lot being said about her stripping the power from the trade unions, which left labourers in an abyss ripe for exploitation by their employers. The treatment of the workers by their foreman and ganger shows the horrors of what can happen without any form of support for employees, particular a group of men who are off the books and desperate for cash. They are the rats amongst the rubble, vulnerable to being stomped on at any moment (again, RIP baby rats).

The film paints a picture of Britain as being an almost post-apocalyptic waste land of squats and debris left in privatisation’s wake for the working-classes, and a dream land of possibility for everyone else. There is a heavy classism theme here. Like Stevie says, “depression is for the middle-classes, the rest of us have work in the morning.”

What do you think?

Alex:

I agree with everything you’ve said. I would add that I don’t think it is feeling sorry for the labourers, I think it is showing them as respectable dignified characters. For someone who (if I’m right in thinking) didn’t like the film that much you bought into its political themes.

What are your final thoughts?

Luke:

It’s not so much that I didn’t like it, it just wasn’t always to my personal taste. I think it’s an important film and an interesting peek into a moment in time but for my liking there’s room for improvement. It may not be something I re-watch but I can appreciate its significance.

7/10 Alex    6/10 Luke

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One thought on “Riff-Raff (Loach, 1991)

  1. I need to re-watch this movie. Ken Loach is a really great Brit-grit director, the political message in this one is pretty bleak, and you’re right (Alex) re: it baring too much resemblance to today’s climate!

    Liked by 1 person

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