My Name is Joe (1998)

D: Ken Loach
S: Peter Mullan, Louise Godall, David McKay

A reformed alcoholic (Peter Mullan) trains a local football team and becomes romantically involved with a social worker (Louise Godall). When one of his team (David McKay) falls into the debt of a gangster (David Hagman) who threatens to break his legs, Mullan agrees to work for him. This doesn't sit so well with Godall, and Mullan's newfound peace and security is severly threatened, leading to a confrontation with himself and his life with dramatic results.

Despite the overlay of Scottish locales and the general concern with gritty drama characteristic of director Ken Loach (aided by writer Paul Laverty), the dramatic roots of this film are very familiar even to viewers of Hollywood social dramas dating back to the 1930s. It follows a familiar trajectory towards questions of redemption, honour and social justice, tossing in contemporary settings and situations (health clinics, junkies, football). But picture this: Humphrey Bogart in the lead as a reformed alcoholic and maybe ex-con, a team of youths playing baseball, one of whom is a gambler and owes money to a gangster; a beautiful young nurse played by an emerging starlet...Okay, so God is in the details, and My Name is Joe crafts an intimate and authentic picture of its world. It is dramatically convincing and is not trivial or superficial in its treatment of the serious issues which underlie the story. The film is also bolstered by a superb, natural performance from Mullan, and Godall is no starlet, but a mature woman pursuing an adult relationship with the hero rather than merely contrived 'love interest'.

Ken Loach has sustained a long career on serious-minded social dramas, and this one sits well in his filmography and has won typically rapturous plaudits from critics and art house audiences. Yet there is a constant feeling of deja vu here which is difficult to overcome. The task of viewing the film is not made any easier by having to work through the thick Scots accents of the cast. This seemingly trivial and certainly culture-specific niggle (which is nobody's fault, of course) does have the significant effect of shifting attention away from the dialogue (which is often incomprehensible) and onto the story, which, as remarked, is often too familiar to be really involving. Though there are visible and interesting currents in characterisation which make it a long way from the kind of formulaic film which might have been made forty years earlier, these are as much a matter of the passing of time as the particular talents of its makers. It lacks edge, and seems rather old hat and old school in a way which is not easy to see past even given the best of intentions.

My Name is Joe is a thoughtful contemporary drama which is likely to satisfy fans of Loach's previous work and perhaps raise one or two questions worth raising. It is good cinema, in that it is honest and effective and uses the medium well within the frames of reference it has chosen. But it is not as disarming or emotionally affecting as it seems to hope to be, lacking the shock of the new that films such as this had in the 1960s when Loach began making them. It is not great cinema, and it is important that the distinction be made between well meaning films and cinematic masterpieces, especially in an era where so many are neither.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.