The Common Good
May-June 1999

Just a Glimmer of Hope

by Ted Parks | May-June 1999

Relationship as political critique.

I must admit I felt brutalized by the F-word rolling unremittingly off the lips of Joe Kavanagh (Peter Mullan), the recovering alcoholic in British director Ken Loach’s latest film, My Name is Joe. But Joe’s limited linguistic options indicate his own limited choices in a world characterized by addiction, violence, economic inequality, uncaring bureaucracies, and relationships that yearn for transcendence.

We first meet Joe at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in one of the poorer sections of Glasgow. Joe is on the dole; his most meaningful activity is coaching a soccer team that must steal uniforms to have something decent in which to play. When Joe picks up his nephew Liam (David MacKay) for a match, he meets Glasgow social worker Sarah Downey (Louise Goodall) by virtue of a near-crash in an automobile. Sarah works with Liam and his wife Sabine (Anne-Marie Kennedy), young parents who are also recovering addicts. Joe and Sarah move tentatively toward a relationship, but it is threatened by drug deals, crime bosses, and the difficulty involved in staying clean.

Loach’s use of troubled relationships to expose the destructive effects of class and poverty differs from his more overt treatment of political themes in other films. The characters in My Name is Joe hint clearly at the failures of the welfare system and the alienating power of class. There is considerable contrast between Joe’s bare-boned flat and Sarah’s new house, and between Joe’s street smarts and life on the dole and Sarah’s steady social services career. The two are drawn to each other, but their unfulfilled relationship is itself a metaphor for the inadequate way society addresses the problems that keep people like Joe in the world of addiction.

Joe, Sarah, Liam, and Sabine have found a place somewhere in the social safety net, but they hunger for warmth and community. We see their attempts to form meaningful bonds: Joe’s initial encouragement that his fellow addicts are not "alone"; his dedication to his misfit team; Liam’s attempt to hold his family together in the midst of addiction and violence; Joe’s and Sarah’s struggles for relationship.

Lacking in the fight against the emptiness of Joe’s world, however, is any real hope. The agencies that are supposed to support Joe spy on him. Social worker Sarah teaches family planning but turns up pregnant. That’s where Loach’s use of relationship as political critique intersects with viewers who mourn abuse, violence, and inequality, but who keep going back to faith to clarify what needs to change and to receive hope that it can.

Although Loach would probably not agree, a priest’s closing wish of "peace and calm" at a graveside ironically provides a spark of transcendence, a glimmer of hope to complement Joe’s confession of his own brokenness. —Ted Parks

TED PARKS is an associate professor at Pepperdine University where, in addition to teaching Spanish-American literature, he has organized student development projects in Central America.

My Name is Joe. Ken Loach. Artisan Entertainment, 1999.

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