'Riff-Raff' puts the seething life of working-class London on film

April 23, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

There's a point in "Ground Hog Day" where Bill Murray, feeling sorry for himself, turns to two guys in a small town hash house and says something like, "Imagine having a pointless job, no money and a life you could never escape." Of course that's exactly what the guys have; Murray realizes this, and draws back with a start.

It's a great movie moment because it touches on exactly what the movies so often ignore: lives of desperation in the working class, where the work is grindingly hard, the pay numbingly low, the prospects zero and the respect level lower than zero. And that is exactly where Ken Loach's acerbic social comedy "Riff-Raff," which opens today at the Charles, is set.

Loach, a bitter, persuasive, socially engaged British filmmaker, takes us where few want to go: to construction sites around London where the unloved are exploited by the unscrupulous in the mad -- to "gentrify" London's decaying slums.

Loach concentrates on a young worker named Stevie (Robert Carlyle), whose wants are amazingly slight: a job, a place to work, some security, some respect. Not in this life, Stevie. Jobs in this world are evidently easy enough to get, because the builders capitalize on the despair of the unemployed and their consequent powerlessness. Not a pretty place: Complain and you'll get sacked and then you have nothing. Fall off a building and your mates dump you in the hospital and then pull a fast fade. The "company" is shysters trying to squeeze a buck out of every pound of flesh, apt to shortcut you on everything from health coverage to job safety. It's Dickens' Blacking Factory moved to upscale London.

Stevie easily enough joins a piratical crew tearing down walls in flats for pennies and makes the discovery of his life: there, in the ruins, can be found glorious humanity. Loach's great gift (working from a script by a screenwriter who supported himself for years in the building trades, Bill Jesse) is his ability to depict the interaction between men. This is a tough lot, like an infantry platoon. But their common bond, their love, makes them distinct; they never becomes symbolic figures in a great proletarian drama of exploitation by the higher classes. Loach is too honest an artist to indulge in stereotypes. It's a movie, not a mural.

Instead, his workers are mean, dirty and funny. They razz each other unmercifully and crudely, though the level of wit is quite high. (It helps if a screenwriter is writing the lines, of course.) Small dramas unfold -- Stevie has a love affair with another lost soul, a wannabe singer; the upfront hero of the crew, Larry (Ricky Tomlinson) is fired for arguing for safer conditions, and so forth and so on. What drives the movie forward isn't a "plot" in the professional sense, but a seething, bucking sense of life.

"Riff-raff" has one other oddity well worth noting; though it's in the mother tongue, the polyglot of regional dialects is as thick as gravy, and so the filmmakers have taken a truly creative step in easing the ear strain. It's the only movie in history that bears the following label: "In English, with subtitles."

"Riff-Raff"

1% Starring Robert Carlyle and Ricky

Tomlinson.

Directed by Ken Loach.

Released by Fine Line.

Unrated.

***

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