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All Bottled Up

[whitespace] My Name Is Joe

Ken Loach turns the camera on a dirty and sober life

By Richard von Busack

GLASGOW, URBAN SCOTLAND, NOW. My Name Is Joe is set in the part of Europe that doesn't go on postcards. Towers of housing projects overlook the steep green hills of the city. Among the numberless unemployed is Joe (Peter Mullan), a recovering alcoholic. Joe draws his welfare, fields an amateur soccer team and goes to meetings. He sponsors a cleaned-up pal, the ex-heroin addict Liam (David McKay). Through Liam, Joe meets the social worker Sarah (Louise Goodall), with whom he begins a fragile courtship.

In a city in which there's a pub on every corner, where does an unemployed alcoholic take a girl on a date? And Sarah's dedication to helping the neglected goes only so far--she's wary about sleeping with someone who has worse problems than her own. Although Joe is living steadily despite the new pressures, Liam is having a harder time. Liam's ability to keep off drugs is hampered by his still-using wife, Sabine (the gritty Ann-Marie Kennedy). Liam and Sabine have a "wean" (a child), which gives urgency to their staying sober and staying together. But Sabine is whoring herself ("on the game" is the phrase), and Liam weasels out on money owed to a leg-breaking thug. Terrified, Liam turns to Joe, who is forced to get into the drug-running business long enough to help. Sarah finds out that Joe is in the drug racket and hits the roof. Our hero has the old-movie dilemma of choosing between the needs of an old friend and a new love.

My Name Is Joe is a Bogart story, Scotland-style. And it's got the usual Bogart noble/tragic finale, though it could be described as a tragedy with comedy always threatening to break out. Here are all of the naturalistic touches common to director Loach (Ladybird, Ladybird, Carla's Song). Paul Laverty's dialogue is in Glaswegian dialect with English subtitles, and as always in downbeat Great Britain, the f-word in all of its chords and variations and minors and majors blasts out in a razzing folk song of fucked-up life. (A laborer showing plumber's butt is described as "fuckin' Yul Brynner with an ax through his head.")

This story of frustration comes to a head just as we might predict: the pressure for Joe to hit the bottle becomes too hard to resist. Mullan won the best actor award at Cannes last year, and he deserves it. He is a terrier version of Ed Harris, complete with sensitive eyes in a convict/muscleman's blocklike head. When Mullan finally loses his temper, it's a shock. Expect some critics to find Loach old-fashioned for following the stories of the still unreconstructed survivors of the Thatcher years--they're unfashionable people. The funny thing about fashion is that it always turns 360 degrees. Economic inequality is extreme today. It may be that Loach wasn't the last of a wave of working-class filmmakers so much as he is the swell of the next wave.

My Name Is Joe (R; 105 min., directed by Ken Loach, written by Paul Laverty, photographed by Batrry Ackroyd and starring Peter Mullan and Louise Goodall.

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From the February 25-March 3, 1999 issue of Metro.

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