Maybe the beer-soaked neorealism of so much recent British Isles filmmaking has become something of a clichi -- dreary weather, domestic violence and a dense regional dialect as an access code for Caucasian emotional authenticity. If so, we have to grant English director Ken Loach a special indulgence. Like his countryman Mike Leigh, with whom he is inevitably compared, Loach was present at the genre's creation. He has been making low-budget, high-integrity films about the British working classes for more than 30 years (two excellent examples you can probably find at the video store are 1990's "Riff-Raff" and 1993's "Raining Stones"), and will no doubt go on doing so until death or the vicissitudes of international film financing silence him.
If there is any justice in the world -- and as Loach well knows, there probably isn't -- "My Name Is Joe" will finally make clear that Loach is his own man, not merely a more strident (and less comic) companion to Leigh. A masterpiece in a minor key, "My Name Is Joe" captures its Glasgow setting with the throbbing specificity for which the director is known; you can virtually smell the damp in the walls, the old cigarette smoke, the indoor funk of babies, boiled cabbage and unlaundered clothing. (Fortunately for American audiences, you can also understand the dialogue; quite sensibly, the film has been subtitled for U.S. release.)
For all its clarity of detail, this is also a universal yarn about poverty and the ways it imprisons people both strong and weak, good and bad -- a story that could take place anywhere in the urbanized world, from India to Indianapolis. Even more fundamentally, "My Name Is Joe" is a stirringly acted, deeply compassionate love story about two battered people who believe they've already blown their chance at happiness in life.
Loach's previous movie, the ambitious if flawed "Carla's Song," was divided between '80s Glasgow and Sandinista Nicaragua. There was much to admire in that film, but perhaps Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty felt they'd given short shrift to the Scottish metropolis. Here they return to its working-class, largely Catholic slums (Glasgow's religious divide is nearly as pronounced, if not as bitter, as that of Belfast) to focus on the dilemma of Joe Kavanagh, a onetime boozehound with a violent past who's trying to come to grips with middle age. The five words that follow the title phrase are "... and I am an alcoholic"; Joe is in A.A., 10 months sober, doing odd jobs under the table to supplement his dole income and coaching the neighborhood unemployment center's hapless if eternally hopeful soccer team.
As vividly portrayed by Peter Mullan (a well-known Scottish actor who has previously appeared in "Trainspotting" and "Braveheart" as well as Loach's "Riff-Raff"), Joe has the gravity and self-containment of a compact, athletic man's man who has learned the hard way that he can't trust himself. He has seen both sides of his own nature -- beloved father figure to his dead-end kids and vicious, abusive drunk -- and understands that the line separating them is so fine it almost doesn't exist. When Joe meets Sarah (Louise Goodall), the careworn nurse who teaches infant-care classes at the local health clinic, he can flirt with her with a practiced roguishness and even scam her for a job hanging wallpaper (which he's never done before). But when it comes to asking her out, he's as shy as a 12-year-old; Joe is tangibly unsure that letting someone get close to him is a good idea for either of them.
If Sarah's prior history remains more than a little shadowy, that's the script's fault, not Goodall's. Wearing the air of a woman who has sacrificed too much of herself for too little reward, Sarah can't help responding to Joe's attentions with an almost girlish eagerness, despite the understandable wariness that comes from daily exposure to the grimmer varieties of male behavior. Perhaps only Loach would try to elicit humor from a public-health nurse's struggle to communicate with her clientele -- when Sarah visits a young mother to inquire whether her infant son's testicles have descended properly, the woman is mystified. Patiently, Sarah tries again: "Are his wee balls hanging down all right?"
All I can say about the tender, passionate and all-too-fragile love affair that blossoms between Joe and Sarah is that if you don't weep over this damaged pair as they go bowling, trade early-punk trivia questions and do their damnedest to accommodate their awkward, loner lives to each other, you have no heart. There has always been an emotional core to Loach's best work, a belief in personal and even romantic redemption, but it has never been so compellingly delivered, so free of the dutiful dogma that sometimes congests his films (see, for instance, the lengthy political debate that bogs down the middle of "Land and Freedom," his attempt at a Spanish Civil War epic). When Joe's efforts to rescue the most pathetic member on his soccer team from an evil fate lead to his own criminal involvement and threaten to pull him and Sarah apart, what's at stake isn't some political abstraction, but the death of the precious and improbable hope growing at this movie's center.
In a chilling scene where Joe blithely lies to Sarah about his criminal exploits, Mullan makes it clear that the arrogant, delusional personality of the hardcore drunk remains uncomfortably close to Joe's surface. Loach and Laverty, in fact, refuse to make easy excuses for Joe's decisions. Their point is more that life in places like working-class Glasgow enforces unacceptable bargains -- you can turn away from those you love to save yourself, or you can risk your own destruction for others, never knowing if any good will come of it.
Joe's rapid downward spiral into violence and disaster, and its startling resolution, may strike some viewers as overly melodramatic. But the intense naturalism of Loach's filmmaking -- as always, he uses natural light and actual settings, shoots in sequence and packs as many local non-actors into the cast as he can -- allows him to take extraordinary liberties with his narrative universe without destroying it. Like all successful tragedy, "My Name Is Joe" ends in profound sadness but not in despair. We can just barely believe, at the end of this resonant and moving film, that Joe and Sarah might have a future -- and we know how terribly high its price has been.