Greed as the Prime-mover
The opening scenes of “Riff-Raff” are rather revolting. There is the familiar sight of vultures (read developers) hovering over a heritage building, Princess of Wales Hospital in London and renovating it into luxury apartment blocks. The people behind the project are quite aggressive and have a ‘road-roller’ approach. ‘No’ as an answer would be crushed. They treat everybody else like dirt and give a damn about workers lives. The safety norms at the site are below par, exposed electrical leads, rickety scaffolding etc. If anybody complains, he is chucked out on the spot, no notice, nothing. Into this scenario, the protagonist Stevie (Robert Carlyle) arrives from Scotland. He has a prison record and desperately wants to find work as a Brickie.
He too is ridiculed.
The Site-Engineer responds in mock surprise.
Oh, I thought you were here to grant me three wishes.
|Unemployed Workers - Francis De Erdely|
However, there exists among those hapless souls, a warmth and comradery held together by a certain pride in their manual labor. It is anybody’s guess whom their ire is directed against. Though the film is more or less in the documentary format, the viewer does not get alienated due to the underlying humaneness.
Stevie does not have a roof over his head, he is penniless. His colleagues settle the issues by making Stevie to squat on a vacant, rat-infested flat. He begins an affair with Susan (Emer McCourt) who is a no-hope singer in reality but aspires to make it big someday. Like celebrity singers, she is very choosy about food and banks heavily on psychics. At the very first meeting with Stevie, she tries I Ching! As it happens with emotionally unstable people, Susan gets mood swings.
Don’t you get depressed? She asks her boyfriend.
Depression is for the middle-class, says Stevie. The rest of us get an early start in the morning
|to field- Ellis Wilson|
The duo is dysfunctional. They do not jam well because of their divergent world-views.
At one stage, Susan declares,
I own 50% of this relationship, remember!
They break away and she disintegrates into a heroin addict. The would-be rock star begs at the side-walk!
Stevie goes back to Susan rescuing her out of the hell-hole. The film has many a celebration in humaneness.
In fact, the viewers are constantly purified by the goodness embedded.
Not for long.
One of the Africans, Des, a teenager with an innocent face dies a tragic death falling from the top floor. The scaffolding gave way. He was always thinking of visiting Africa to trace out his roots. Even at his death, he was holding a brochure giving the travel map to Africa.
The film takes a sharp turn from this point. Enraged, Stevie and his pal set fire to the building.
Ken Loach should have ended Riff Raff in a different way. What he did is nothing short of wishful thinking! The viewer is let off prematurely. He/she is not likely to work on the film any further! The film no longer disturbs!
|Foreman at the foundry - Eugnily Shibanov|
Ken Loach has employed mainly non-professional actors in Riff Raff as well. His preference is well known. He used actual construction workers in spite of the existence of trade-unions. Perhaps they might have given him the nod knowing his leftist leanings. What’s more, the Script Writer Bill Jesse also worked at construction sites, taking the bow at 48 when the film was at the post-production stage. Riff Raff is dedicated to him.
Yet another oddity of the Director is chronological shooting. Ken Loach unfolds as it originally happened in the script. The actors are never given the full script in advance! They are completely in the dark about the future happenings. Ken Loach always distributes the script on a daily basis.
In spite of all Ken Loach’s oddities, his Riff Raff too is pleasantly watchable.
It won the International Critics Award at Cannes in 1991.