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From the start, the British filmmaker Ken Loach came out swinging in support of the underdog. Long before his films opened in theaters, his 1960s television plays introduced uncomfortable topics like back-street abortion (“Up the Junction”) and homelessness (“Cathy Come Home”) to audiences who were not always appreciative of their documentarylike realness and divisive politics.

Since then, his dogged championing of society’s strugglers and stragglers has sometimes resulted in his films’ being misread or underappreciated by American audiences. (Even the British film critic David Thomson once judged Loach easier to respect than enjoy.) Inseparable from his time and place, Loach responded to the economic depression of postwar Britain — and what would become decades of Conservative rule — with an unrelenting focus on working-class solidarity. In a Loach movie, survival hinges not on individualism, but on community.

Film Forum’s wide-ranging retrospective (running through May 2), which generously samples Loach’s prolific output from 1967 to the present, offers an opportunity to marvel at the breadth and emotional heft of an audacious career. In the 1990s alone (invigorated, one guesses, by 11 years of Thatcherism), he tackled topics as diverse and contentious as Northern Ireland (“Hidden Agenda”), labor rights (“Riff-Raff”), unemployment (“Raining Stones”), domestic abuse (“Ladybird, Ladybird”) and addiction (“My Name is Joe”) with an uncompromising belief in the essential drama of ordinary lives.

Over time, his films have become less raw and more artful, more fluidly cinematic but with no less social relevance or political edge. (It’s notable, and shameful, that his 2019 indictment of worker exploitation, “Sorry We Missed You,” feels as justified today as it did more than three decades ago in “Riff-Raff.”) Injections of tough-minded humor have inoculated even his most tragic pictures from charges of miserabilism and opened them up to a wider audience. In “Raining Stones” (1993), for instance — about an unemployed father who takes dangerous steps to purchase his daughter’s first communion dress — a gently comic undertow eases the violence. You’ll be distressed, but you won’t be destroyed.

Nowhere, though, is humor more essential than in two of Loach’s most wrenching dramas. In “I, Daniel Blake” (2016) — whose release in Britain sparked a parliamentary discussion — an ailing widower (Dave Johns) is repeatedly rebuffed by an impenetrable welfare system. Despite the welcome distraction of Paul Laverty’s salty, spiky dialogue, some scenes (as when Daniel accompanies an impoverished single mother to a food bank) remain so gutting I like to think even Thatcher would have crumpled.

No less harrowing, yet defiantly ebullient, “My Name Is Joe” (1998) follows a recovering alcoholic (the great Peter Mullan in a jaunty performance) as he risks his sobriety and a new romance to help a desperate friend. Washed in warmly gritty photography and dialogue (again by Laverty) that singes the ears, the movie is vibrantly alive in ways that transcend its somber subject matter.

Until his latest (and likely last) feature, “The Old Oak,” Loach has mostly avoided triumphalism or extremes of sentiment, favoring realistically bleak or indeterminate endings. (A chilling example is his 1971 drama, “Family Life,” which traps an emotionally fragile teenager between her bullying mother and the brutal interventions of an antiquated mental health institution.) Age has doused neither the fire in his belly not the moral astringency of his gaze, resulting in characters who never plead for sympathy. Instead of whining, they fight.

Few battle harder than Maggie (an incendiary Crissy Rock), the single mother in “Ladybird, Ladybird” (1994), who’s been knocked around by life and a series of shiftless men. Maggie is so relentlessly combative and unapologetic (“I smell trouble and I go to bed with it”) that viewers can find it easier to blame her, rather than the film’s mostly solicitous social workers, for her operatic misfortunes. Not Loach, though, who forces us to reckon with the way poverty and abuse can make us enemies even to ourselves.

The mother who appears in Loach’s debut feature, “Poor Cow” (1968), has also, like Maggie, suffered abuse, but the two films could not be more different. I first saw “Poor Cow” some time in the ’80s, and a recent rewatch convinced me I had failed to fully appreciate both the loveliness of its color-soaked images and the radical feminism of its stance. Adapted from Nell Dunn’s 1967 novel, it remains Loach’s most wistful and formally experimental film, following Joy (Carol White, glowing like a pop-art angel) as she uses her beauty to scrape by when her boyfriend (a scrumptious Terence Stamp) lands in prison. (Some of Stamp’s footage was ingeniously repurposed by Steven Soderbergh for his 1999 thriller, “The Limey,” in which Stamp also stars and whose character appears in flashbacks as a young man.)

There’s a winsome innocence to this movie, and to Joy’s promiscuity: She refuses to “turn professional,” as a friend urges, because she enjoys sex too much. (The film’s title uses a British slur for a loose woman.) Accompanied by Donovan’s plaintive soundtrack, Joy is a philosopher-flâneuse, wandering the laundry-draped courtyards and agitated streets of West London and telling us, in desirous voice-over, exactly what she wants. Whatever that may be, the film insists, she’s as entitled to it as any man.

Viewed en masse, Loach’s movies form a cinema of working-class superheroes, caped in hard-knock resilience. The modesty of their ambitions — they aspire to sufficiency, not luxury — might mystify viewers accustomed to Hollywood’s narrative excesses. Joy seeks happiness in “a man, a baby and a couple of nice new rooms to live in”; Stevie (Robert Carlyle), the itinerant laborer in “Riff-Raff,” dreams of leaving his dodgy construction site and opening a little shop. Yet there’s something touchingly noble in their limitations and pragmatism, exemplified by Stevie’s bracing retort when his girlfriend admits to feeling depressed.

“Depression’s for the middle class,” he snaps. “The rest of us have an early start in the morning.”



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