7. raining stones (Ken Loach, 1993)
When Raining Stones was released in 1993 it was unburdened by the current widespread familiarity of its two lead actors, Bruce Jones (Les Battersby in uber-soap Coronation Street) and Ricky Tomlinson (inter alia Jim Royle in The Royle Family). Fans of either or both who have not seen Raining Stones, would be well-advised to seek it out and enlighten themselves to the range of these two actors and to the power of Loach's work.
Before Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (2003) dragged political cinema into the mainstream, directors like Spike Lee, John Sayles and latterly Tim Robbins were operating as a sort of fifth column in Hollywood, risking widespread opprobrium by wearing their radical or liberal hearts on their sleeves. In Britain, writer/directors such as Jimmy McGovern, Peter Flannery and Paul Greengrass operated (and continue to do so) with some success on television.
But without ever attracting much attention, Coventry-born Ken Loach (left, who directed the acclaimed Kes in 1969) has spent the last 30 years quietly getting on with the business of producing nothing but the most strident and uncompromising political feature films for a cinema audience.
Loach's highly charged examination of the John Stalker story, Hidden Agenda (1990) won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and Loach repeated this success in 1993 with Raining Stones. Since then, he has shown his versatility with the Spanish Civil war epic Land and Freedom (1995), the American immigrant drama Bread and Roses (2000) and trenchant modern British-based films like Ladybird Ladybird (1994), Sweet Sixteen (2002) and most powerfully of all, My Name is Joe (1998), a film which encapsulates all of Loach's work in one place, rather as North by Northwest did for Alfred Hitchcock.
Unlike Moore, Lee and Oliver Stone, who use their forceful personalities to promote their films, Loach is not prone to public pronouncements. But the films have a fire in their belly and a master's touch. Over the last ten years, he has quietly established himself as the most dedicated and accomplished political film maker in the world.
The story of Raining Stones is austerely simple: Bob (Jones) a decent upstanding family man from an overspill council estate in Manchester, wants to buy a new communion dress for his daughter and somehow needs to raise the money to do it.
He will never beg, but will borrow and occasionally steal. The simplicity of the plot gives the saga a fable-like quality. And what Jones eventually goes through (and puts his family and friends through) to obtain this simple reward gives him a heroic dimension.
Marxist scriptwriter Jim Allen's portrayal of post-Thatcherite Britain is grounded in the depths of degradation which the film depicts for its poverty-stricken characters. A scene in which Tomlinson is forced to accept a small loan from his teenage daughter is particularly powerful, as Tomlinson, framed in medium shot (so allowed a moment of semi-privacy) bursts into tears.
Right: Bruce Jones (Bob) and Ricky Tomlinson (Tommy)
Loach's aesthetic approach is naturalistic, both in terms of acting and direction, in the tradition of Allan Clarke and French film-maker Maurice Pialat. The audience is involved but kept in check and only permitted the briefest moments of escapism. But Loach is always holding flashes of directorial brilliance in reserve. The climactic scene of Raining Stones is where a vicious loan shark, Tansey (a terrifyingly real portrayal by Jonathan James) pays a visit to Bob's home while Bob is out and confronts his wife and family. The horror of the episode resides in its documentary feel and it echoes the climactic ending of Loach's seminal 1960s television drama Cathy Come Home. Loach's technical ability is often overlooked, but deserves greater credit for being so understated. Whilst he is not about to apologise for being a polemicist, he will never take Oliver Stone's directorial baseball bat to his audience's heads.
This technique of keeping his powder dry is one of the strongest features of Loach's work. In a similar scene in My Name is Joe he crowns a period of unbearable tension (when the eponymous character confronts the local ganglord) with a moment of explosive violence more shocking and powerful than anything in Cinema since Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976). The effect is akin to that of a documentary which inadvertently captures something appalling as it happens. Until that moment, nothing in the film prepares you for it.
The humour in Raining Stones comes entirely from the reality of the characters' lives and discourse. But far from the idiosyncratic humour of an improvised script by Mike Leigh (who is often misguidedly associated with Loach but whose theatrical style is anathema) Jim Allen's dialogue is beautiful in its mundanity. The audience is allowed to identify with characters who are simply human, not stereotyped, quirky or over-written - only real. This takes enormous skill to pull off and the acting in Raining Stones, in particular from Julie Brown (left) as Anne, Bob's wife, is note-perfect.
Above all, Raining Stones deserves to be remembered because of the clarity of its message, which one sadly feels will be relevant for many years to come. Great Britain, one of the world's most affluent economic superpowers, a country whose greatness was built on the skill and sweat of ordinary hard-working people, is still prepared to tolerate a society where poverty strips people's pride and dignity from them as they simply become victims of "market forces".
Bob's story is not an allegory, it doesn't symbolise a Hollywood-like quest to achieve some loftier dream, it is what it is: he cannot find a job and cannot afford to buy something he feels he should provide for his daughter. The immediacy of this predicament is stomach-churning. The film is a wake-up call for all those who saluted Thatcher's "economic miracle". As it happens the ending of Raining Stones is upbeat, like a ray of sunshine breaking through rainclouds which continue to pass relentlessly overhead.
Raining Stones 101 minutes Director Ken Loach Writer Jim Allen Actors Bruce Jones Ricky Tomlinson Julie Brown Jonathan James Tom Hickey Photography Barry Ackroyd Score Stewart Copeland