'Raining Stones' adds a dash of hope and humor to hard times

September 09, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

There's no more radical filmmaker than the British bomb thrower Mike Loach, but at the same time there's not one quite so cheerful and full of love.

Like the now happily vanished working-class cinema of America, where stilted Marxist quasi-lyrics were routinely stuffed into the mouths of worker poets, and like the work of the British angry young men of the '60s, freighted with pungent, clunky melodrama, Loach sees society fragmented; but unlike them, he sees people whole. He may be a muckraker but he's not a symbol crasher.

"Riffraff," his last film, followed a plucky crew of pickup construction workers routinely exploited by their employers. It was weirdly angry and happy at the same time. It was also so dense in the argot of working-class London that it provided subtitles for slow-witted American audiences. The subtitles would have helped with "Raining Stones," which opens today at the Charles in a rotation with "Bahji on the Beach." Still, the Charles expects each man to do his duty, so I expect most of you will muddle through.

Loach's style is visually unpretentious, almost spontaneous. He prefers to work with talent he finds in the cities rather than professional actors, and indeed his worst film, "Hidden Agenda," is the only one of his recent works that featured pros. In "Raining Stones," his stars are Bruce Jones and Julie Brown, of whom you've never heard.

Both are real people -- Jones a dairyman, Brown a housewife and singer. And Loach gets that reality on screen. The two play Anne and Bob, a working-class couple trying to get by in the grip of a society crushed by recession. Bob, a plumber, is unemployed; he lives by scuffling along in a barter culture, picking odd jobs wherever. Loach doesn't romanticize him: he's just a bloke, trying to be honest but not always succeeding. The movie opens with his comical attempts to steal a sheep for the meat, and proceeds swiftly to the revelation that having done so, he cannot kill the creature. Some thief!

Two additional burdens are placed on the family. The first is the theft of Bob's van, the very core of his livelihood; the second is the arrival of first communion for his 8-year-old daughter Collen (Gemma Phoenix) and his desperate need to provide her with $300 worth of communion dress.

The movie doesn't find its narrative for a bit, but that's fine, because for the longest time it might be called the cinema of empathy. Bob isn't a great man, he may not be a very smart man, he's not even a particularly moral man; but he's a hero in the Greek sense of the word, locked in a mortal struggle with titanic forces beyond his comprehension. Loach makes this clear in the movie's one "cinematic" touch, but one so profanely appropriate that it hardly seems, except in reflection, like a comment.

Bob is going house to house to pick up work as a drain cleaner, fails miserably, and is subtly conned into doing a charity job for the local priest. This gets him in a hole struggling with a backed-up pipe and WHOOOSH, guess what ends up plastered all over him? It isn't chicken salad. That's Bob and that's what an indifferent society has done to him.

If Clifford Odets had written "Raining Stones," Bob would end up reading a soliloquy in the electric chair. If Tony Richardson had directed it, he would have been beaten to a bloody pulp by coppers or gangsters or both. Loach is far more realistic and far more gentle. Bob borrows money, the debt is sold to terrifying loan sharks who threaten his wife and himself. Yet somehow Bob manages to bumble through it all, kept afloat by his heart. A wonderfully practical priest provides the proper gift of heavenly guidance when called for, the movie's most rewarding emotional moment.

What's so subtly great about Loach is the way in which he manages to condemn the dark economic currents in society without turning his films into nightmares of crushing pessimism or yielding to cheap cynicism. He still has hope. That's in short supply these days, and to be treasured.

"Raining Stones"

Starring Bruce Jones and Julie Brown

Directed by Ken Loach

Released by Northern Arts

Unrated

***

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