Martin Compston is best known for appearing in the entertainingly silly police fantasy Line of Duty, but his first acting role was in the grimly serious Ken Loach movie Sweet Sixteen in 2002. He was at the beginning of a career as a professional footballer, and auditioned for the lead part with no prior acting experience. His performance is pretty extraordinary, although it’s not unprecedented, as Loach has habit of casting non-actors for his films, which focus on ordinary lives and are frequently performed in impenetrable regional dialects. Sweet Sixteen is set in Greenock, on the south bank of the Clyde west of Glasgow, and its dialogue can be pretty hard to follow, even for someone moderately accustomed to Glaswegian (which is a very similar dialect). This is not simply because it’s in dialect, but because it’s realistic: the characters talk how people talk, with a lot of false starts and repetitions, rather than the way that actors usually talk in films. Whatever topic Loach is exploring, he does so through the prosaic, everyday experience of ordinary people, and he directs with a rigorous commitment to making their voices central.
Loach’s films are usually classified as ‘drama’, which means they don’t fit into any of the usual genres of cinematic entertainment, such as ‘thriller’, ‘action’, ‘rom-com’, ‘horror’, or ‘crime’. There’s a case to be made for calling Sweet Sixteen a crime movie though, I think, since there is a tradition of social realism within that genre, and one of that tradition’s surface manifestations is naturalistic dialogue which faithfully represents a regional dialect. I’m sure Loach didn’t set out to make a genre piece, and the paltry box-office take achieved by this excellent movie gives the lie to any such suggestion, but it is about a young man being drawn into a criminal subculture, and as such it has a good deal in common with aspects of a film like Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, for instance. The idea that Ken Loach would glamourise crime or violence is so ludicrous that anyone who has ever seen any of his movies would laugh it out of court, but he did need to show the glamour and attraction that a life of crime holds for Compston’s character, Liam. Liam’s background is deprived in the extreme, with no family stability or material security, so all that really takes is enough money to live in a flat that’s not squalid, and that’s equipped with a dishwasher, but a sense of belonging to a crew—of not being a nobody—is also important. The scenes that establish that feeling are certainly reminiscent of scenes in some Scorsese films, and I was reminded somewhat of Mean Streets, the film Scorsese made before he realised that violence and swearing were commercial assets. In that film, as in Sweet Sixteen, the most important currency, the one whose scarcity drives the characters and the action, is hope.
This is something of a recurring theme for Loach. He is a director absolutely committed to his socialist principles. He isn’t making films for fun, or to ‘express himself’, but because he feels the desperate need for these stories to be told. He understands the radical lack of choice apportioned to the poorest members of our society, the extremity of their circumstances, and the extremities of behaviour that those constraints can drive them to. He understands, and he’s angry, and he has dedicated his life to telling the world about it. A character like Liam will be seen by respectable Scottish people in the same way as a figure like Paul Ferris, who Compston also played, in The Wee Man—a film which had to be shot in London as Strathclyde Police refused to assist a production which portrayed Ferris sympathetically. Loach asks us, rhetorically, where the line is drawn between the neglected and abused child that we’d all like to help, and the hardened criminal that we’ll queue up to pass moral judgement upon. Given that we know the social causes of criminality, the determining factors that can guarantee a certain number of career criminals per head of population below the poverty line, why do we feel entitled to judge them? Why are we so sure we wouldn’t be among their number, had we been subject to the same levels of deprivation? Why does a young man, who wanted only to have a normal life with his mum, deserve to go to prison, simply because he chose the only path in life that might have permitted him to achieve that? Why, when the inequalities that enable some of us to over-consume leave others completely without prospects, do we blame those others for their acts of desperation? These are the questions that Loach has been asking over and over throughout his career, and to which society is still no closer to offering satisfactory responses than when he began in the 1960s. In Sweet Sixteen he succeeds in asking them without hectoring his audience or simplifying the lives and experiences that he represents. He gives his characters time and space to grow, and to present themselves in three dimensions, and he gives his audience credit for the intelligence and compassion to draw their own conclusions.