With so much talk, both here and abroad, of a "Third Way" between conservatism and liberalism, it's reassuring to know that England's Ken Loach is still around, making movies that look at politics from the bottom up. Loach, the director of such heart-wrenching dramas as Kes, Raising Stones and Ladybird, Ladybird, has been called "the last uncompromising leftist filmmaker." I don't think that does him full justice. For, though Loach is very interested in politics, he rarely leads with it. His movies, almost invariably set among the working class, are true slices of life, life having been sliced again and again because there's so little of it to go around. The characters in Loach's films are neither heroes nor villains, just ordinary people who'd like to squeeze a little happiness from their situations, as one would squeeze water from a rock. Those who go to Loach's latest film, My Name Is Joe, expecting to see The Full Monty will be sorely disappointed. My Name Is Joe is like The Full Monty without...the full monty--i.e., the vaguely happy ending that The Full Monty managed to come up with. Loach prefers vaguely unhappy endings, which doesn't exactly endear him to American audiences. In My Name Is Joe, Peter Mullan is Joe Kavanagh, an alcoholic who's been on the wagon for 10 months and might stay there forever if the drug-dazed poverty of Glasgow weren't closing in on him. With his athlete's body just starting to go to seed, Joe's put what's left of his heart into a men's soccer team he coaches (the Bad News Bears of Scotland). Then, suddenly, love walks into his life when he meets Sarah (Louise Goodall), a health worker with enough heart for both of them.
Loach and scriptwriter Paul Laverty allow the romance between Joe and Sarah to blossom, then start removing the petals, one by one, as Joe gets embroiled with a drug dealer who's owed money by one of the soccer players. The pieces of the plot lock together a little too easily, I suppose, but where the movie shines is in the naturalness of its performances. Mullan, who kept reminding me of a young James Caan, has the frightening ability to play both an ordinary Joe and, when pushed too far, G.I. Joe. Like so many characters in Scottish or Irish films, Joe has the gift of gab, although we might not know this if the filmmakers hadn't provided subtitles to help us untangle those thick Scottish accents. Thus does Loach beautifully preserve the movie's sense of being set in a very particular place and time, the inescapable here and now of Joe's life.