Family Life (1971)

Dir: Ken Loach, GB, 108 mins

Cast: Sandy Ratcliff, Bill Dean, Grace Cave, Malcom Tierney, Michael Riddall, Alan MacNaughton

With a career spanning the best part of fifty years few British directors have chronicled the hardships of working class life as astutely and comprehensively as Ken Loach.  Taking on the baton of social realism from his Kitchen Sink contemporaries, such as Lindsay Anderson (This Sporting Life, 1963) and Karel Reisz (Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, 1960), Loach has stayed true to his roots and beliefs, vehemently highlighting political and social ramifications that impinge on his everyman protagonists.  His oeuvre stands alone as testament to a strata of society fighting for survival against an unjust, unsympathetic establishment.

Family Life was Loach’s first feature after the critical and commercial success of Kes (1969).  Technically it is a remake of In Two Minds (1967), one of a cycle of BBC backed Wednesday Play episodes which also brought about Cathy Come Home (1966), infamous for sparking a public and parliamentary debate on homelessness.  TheLondon based narrative focuses on Janice Baildon (Ratcliff), a confused nineteen year old unable to hold down a job and gradually losing mental stability.  Her parent’s (Dean and Cave) rigid attempts to come to terms with the situation result in them seeking psychological help for their daughter.

Janice’s bewilderment arises out of her family’s expectations of her as a working class woman, at a time when notions of traditional English values are being usurped by a seventies counter-culture that offers another path, one that doesn’t necessarily lead to a husband, children and a mortgage.  She has mental health issues, but understands and desperately fights against the indoctrination process that passes from generation to generation.  As they look out the window at endless rows of terrace houses set against a dull, grey sky, Janice’s boyfriend Tim (Tierney) encapsulates the predicament perfectly as he comments on her parents “So they can go out to one of those factories and do a days work, that’s what its all about, that’s all it is, that’s what families are, bloody training camps, to get you to do the same thing”.  Janice is intelligent enough to recognize the predicament she is in and wants to break this cycle, but the structure of the class system and the ideology that has been ingrained upon it is determined to control, moderate and keep her in place.

Loach’s film is a brutal indictment on the mental healthcare system of the period.  Under new unorthodox counselling sessions with Dr. Donaldson (Riddall), who does not believe in medication to solve the issue, Janice opens up and makes progress, talking through her feelings.  Donaldson interviews each family member separately and a dysfunctional profile of the unit is unveiled, one founded on a marriage of obligation and emotional repression.  However, due to “administrative reasons” the stuffy, conservative board disbands this project.  Janice is then placed into the care of Dr. Carswell (MacNaughton) who favours electro-shock therapy and she rapidly deteriorates.  The final scene of the film where Carswell brings her out as a case study for a group of bored med students evokes a disturbing throwback to the archaic methods of a less enlightened era.

By fusing documentary aesthetics to a fictional form, the realism of the former enhances the latter.  Performances feel naturalistic; a key trait of Loach’s is to employ non-actors, as is the case with Riddall who actually worked for the NHS, or actors with some emotional connection through relevant life experience.  Scenes have a vitality and unpredictability to them with overlapping dialogue which compliments the camerawork to achieve the desired overall effect.  Family Life regrettably failed to find an audience due to its controversial subject matter, but remains a fiercely intelligent, confrontational insight into the mental healthcare system and the psychology of a working class family from Britain’s only truly committed, political filmmaker.        

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