I did a silly thing with this one. I watched it dubbed into Spanish. For quite a long time, I didn't even realise it wasn't a Spanish-language film, since it opens with people-smuggling (I think) on the USA-Mexico border and some of the film is in that language anyway.
Nevertheless I quite enjoyed it. In fact I'd been looking forward to this one. Ken Loach is one of those directors whose name I'd expect to be known by pretty much everyone in Britain and almost no one else, although that doesn't necessarily mean people will have watched his films. Me, I'd seen Kes. That's it. Ken Loach, for those who don't know, is a left-wing filmmaker notorious for socialist polemic and unromantic realism. In other words, his stuff's bloody miserable. That's the stereotype I had in my head, anyway. However I also knew that he's made some of the most powerful, important films to have come out of Britain, starting with Cathy Come Home and continuing with works like Ladybird Ladybird, Carla's Song and Riff-Raff.
Unusually, for this film he's left Britain. Carla's Song went to Nicaragua and this film has gone to Los Angeles, to show us the struggle of immigrants doing insecure, badly paid work as janitors and yet fighting for better working conditions and the right to form unions. It's inspired by real events. There was a Justice for Janitors campaign in the 1980s, run by the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), while the film's title goes back to a famous textile strike of the same name in Massachusetts in 1912.
The results, believe it or not, are quite fun. I don't think Ken Loach has much of a clue about Los Angeles, but I don't mind him being superficial. It means he isn't depressing. Industrial action and trade disputes are instead being made to look like a bit of a lark, with Adrian Brody's character being the happiest, most charming activist you ever saw. Their disruption of a celebrity party is downright entertaining, for a start. Violence? Nope. Heavy-handed police tactics? Nope, despite the ominous-looking army of the buggers we see gathering at one point. There's also not much insight into the daily life of these Mexican immigrants, despite one highly emotional scene in which even I understood enough of what was being said to realise that sometimes class treachery is the better of two evils. Wow, those were some extreme choices. Put it this way... I managed to not only sit through but actually enjoy a film about the socialist political struggle in which I understood about 0.01% of the dialogue.
Loach's filmmaking style helped, I think. He's famous for how far he'll go to get honesty from his actors, for instance shooting his films in order and not telling his cast what's coming next. Here many of the people working on the film really were Latino immigrants or activists, with first-hand experience of the dangers of crossing into America. Adrian Brody joined Los Angeles trade unions meetings in preparation for his role. The lead actress, Pilar Padilla, couldn't speak English before doing a crash course in it to play this role. It's real. I was engaged by the people, basically. They feel truthful and alive. It's filmmaking that grabs you, as opposed to the dreariness of that Sally Potter film
I watched yesterday. I'm definitely up for more Loach.
It's also worth pointing out that Brody is the youngest winner of a Best Actor Oscar (at 29) to date and that he agreed to do this film without a script, because he wanted to work with Ken Loach. He's even American, not British. Oh, and that party I mentioned includes the following uncredited cameos: Tim Roth, Ron Perlman, William Atherton, Vanessa Angel, Benicio Del Toro, Oded Fehr, Chris Penn and Robin Tunney.
Obviously I'm not the best person to go into detail on this film, but I liked it. It didn't feel bogged down in itself. Its plot isn't really of interest, but the film's sufficiently engaging from moment to moment that the story doesn't matter and it's still got that one emotionally raw scene between the two Mexican sisters. I'm guessing it's not particularly typical of Ken Loach and it certainly doesn't have the power that you'd associate with his most famous films, but I also think it works much better than you'd expect. He's been a director for 45 years and he's still standing up for what he believes in. I like him. I'm sure we'd disagree a lot if we ever sat down together for a political discussion, but I'm going to be watching more of his films.