"Riff-Raff" is a film as likable, unpretentious and just a little bit dangerous as its name. A slight but significant slice of British working-class life, its warmhearted humor is tempered by a definite warning edge of uncompromising social consciousness.
A comedy of manners about people who have to manage without them, "Riff-Raff" (at the Nuart for nine days) is set in the boom days of Margaret Thatcher's London and centers around the comic, romantic and melancholy adventures of a group of have-not laborers who are turning an old hospital into posh flats for society's consuming classes.
Winner of several European prizes, including the International Critics Prize at Cannes, "Riff-Raff" is the latest film by Ken Loach, one of the most admired if least known of British directors. A passionately sympathetic observer of his country's underclass whose best films, such as "Kes" and "Family Life," have had almost no distribution in this country, Loach has always had the gift of empathy, of getting unflinchingly close to the reality of his characters' marginalized lives.
What makes "Riff-Raff" a change of pace for Loach is the bursts of raucous humor that punctuate Bill Jesse's script. Jesse, who died suddenly at age 48 before he could see the completed film, was a construction worker as well as a writer. His anarchic screenplay, which David Puttnam originally commissioned while he was at Columbia, delivers a combination of amusing camaraderie and anger at an exclusionary class system that is as strong as that felt by any victim of America's inner cities.
What is not very American is the wide variety of accents that "Riff-Raff's" cast, nominal English speakers every one, employs. With voices coming from Belfast, Liverpool, Glasgow and the West Indies, these men communicate in language so vigorous and rich that the picture's distributor has provided not-always-necessary subtitles for the linguistically timid.
Stevie (Robert Carlyle), the film's protagonist, is one of the Belfast lads, jokingly called "Billy Connolly" (after an IRA figure) by his mates. Quiet, hard-working and living as a squatter in an unoccupied flat, Stevie is as usual minding his own business when he happens to stumble on a lost purse.
Jammed with letters, a book and a picture of a fetching young woman, the purse so intrigues Stevie that he uses the letters to track down its owner, Susan (Emer McCourt). A would-be rock singer with an uncertain voice, Susan is determinedly countercultural, asking Stevie his sign and throwing the I Ching at their first meeting. For Stevie, whose goal in life is getting into the merchandising of boxer shorts, she is heady stuff indeed.
"Riff-Raff" wouldn't be a movie if Stevie and Susan weren't attracted to each other, but it also wouldn't be one of Ken Loach's if their relationship echoed something like "Far and Away." The sense that there are no easy answers or lasting pleasures, that moments of happiness are infrequent and hard-earned, hangs over everything in this film, the romance as well as the comedy.
Much of that laughter comes from the construction gang, especially Larry (Ricky Tomlinson), a fellow with such a politically active tongue that one of his exasperated pals finally complains, "Every time you open your mouth, it's like a . . . parliamentary debate."
Hardly saints, and in fact capable of bludgeoning baby rats and taking advantage of whoever's handy, these men share more than a kidding sense of humor. Well aware of their marginality, of the ever-present danger of getting "the elbow" from the boss, they still try to have their dreams. That these, modest as they are, periodically prove to be impossible, is something Ken Loach doesn't ever want us to forget.
Robert Carlyle: Stevie
Emer McCourt: Susan
Jimmy Coleman: Shem
George Moss: Mo
Ricky Tomlinson: Larry
A Parallax production for Channel 4, released by Fine Line Features. Director Ken Loach. Producer Sally Hibbin. Screenplay Bill Jesse. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. Editor Jonathan Morris. Music Stewart Copeland. Design Martin Johnson. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.