THE NAVIGATORS (Ken Loach, 2001)

A robust, humane comedy highly reminiscent of his earlier Riff Raff (1991), The Navigators may be Ken Loach’s first masterpiece in a long, prolific career of socially and politically committed fictional filmmaking.* Made in the year that Great Britain began to re-nationalize its railway industry, the film is set six years earlier, in 1995, when parts of the industry were being privatized—that is, several component lines were sold to private companies—as one of the last acts of Thatcherism conducted by Margaret Thatcher’s equally radical right-wing successor as prime minister, John Major. (The law allowing for this had passed in 1993.) By 2001, nearly everyone, even earlier Conservative (Tory) adherents, agreed that the privatization policy, which the public had never been behind, had proven disastrous. (Thatcherism included privatizing all nationalized industries and sectors of the economy.) Thus the film isn’t intended to agitate, as Loach films often do, but to memorialize attitudes and situations, real and fictional, as a warning, to Britain and the rest of the world, not to go down (again) a particular political path. Regrettably, though, Thatcherism continues to be entrenched in the reconceived Britain that Thatcher and Major inhumanly engineered—a movement roughly parallel to Reaganism in the United States.

The film is set in Sheffield, in South Yorkshire. The author of the script from which Loach in this instance directed is Rob Dawber, who, in addition to having been a railway track worker for eighteen years in Sheffield, was a railway union representative there. A witness to its deleterious effects on the workers’ work and lives, Dawber sounded a voice of opposition to the onslaught of privatization, citing safety and workplace concerns. It was a voice in the wilderness, one to which management elected not to listen. A work accident afforded Dawber the opportunity to write the screenplay for The Navigators. Unfortunately, Dawber had another problem: mesothelioma—the cancer he had contracted from the asbestos around which he routinely worked as part of his job. He sued management, bringing to light an internal management memorandum that conceded the lethal nature of the asbestos to which workers were being exposed but opting nonetheless to leave the substance in place to avoid the cost of its removal. Dawber prevailed in court. However, he died of mesothelioma nine months before the release of The Navigators.

A warm, sometimes hilarious comedy about a small, tightly knit group of Sheffield railway workers, the film proceeds inexorably like a train to a harsh conclusion that dramatizes the cruelty and chaos of privatization. (In this harshness, The Navigators occupies a similar place in Loach’s filmography as Naked, 1993, another vivid indictment of Thatcherism, occupies in Mike Leigh’s.) Although what I had read about the film had prepared me for an unspecified tragic ending, when it arrived I was stunned and shaken. I felt I’d been hit by a train, so powerful is this conclusion. Actually, the film as a whole pours into the last development of action and its aftermath; only at the end, though, do we realize the film’s flawless unity—for what in particular the film has been preparing us throughout. However much a model of unity it may be, however, there is nothing at all academic about this film, thanks to the brilliant liveliness and humanity of the workers with whom the film is principally concerned. I realize that such is Loach’s forte, but in this instance he has surpassed himself—as he must, if the ending is to ring true. Part of the film’s humanity is its lack of sentimentality, even around the edges of its characters, bringing to Loach’s art a new rigor. We may say that Loach somewhat unexpectedly achieved a masterpiece because, given the dramatic resolution that the film provides, nothing less than a masterpiece would do. Anything less might have left the ending stranded as a gratuitously shocking event. Under the gun of potential artistic disaster, therefore, Loach has reached for the artistic heavens and humbled them into our domain.

A comical throwaway line threads the unity that the film fleshes out. Under the new rules of privatization that has the railway component passing quickly from one private company to another one, the men are told in no uncertain terms that worker safety is paramount, that loss of life must be kept down to a maximum of two deaths a year—not out of concern for the workers, but out of concern for the reputation of the company! A bad rep, you see, would limit the company’s viability as it goes about the task of bidding for railway projects, including maintenance work. This twisted logic—that laborers must live, but only for the sake of management and owners—eventually reaches its logical conclusion, where the actual safety of workers is brutally sacrificed for an abstract idea of worker safety. At the last, even workers prove undone in their humanity; they become accomplices to management logic. At the outset, though, the stupidity of the logic draws a quip from one of the workers to the effect that the life of no worker in their extended group has been lost as far back as he can recall. Should we therefore lose two lives to satisfy the maximum allowance this year? This witty translation of a limit into a quota is the film’s quintessential joke, and eventually it turns prophetic. The film’s vortex, the joke spins out of control, into tragedy. There’s no stopping it.

Privatization ravages the lives and prospects of the already financially strapped laborers. Of course, their group has been undermined and scattered to the winds in pursuit of work across different areas, the different components of the formerly nationalized system. There is no longer the security of plentiful work; now each company, and even each worker in it, must scramble to nab each piecemeal job that goes begging on the competitive block. In the meantime, an army of the unemployed, without the least bit of railway experience and, in most cases, without a “feel” for this particular work, has been drawn into the pool of railway job applicants. This enhanced competition, along with the varying degrees of success of private companies to secure sufficient work contracts, leads to “redundancies” (ugly word!): the routine firing of workers from sites and company groups. The mindset of workers has thus been shifted by management and the marketplace, from a sense of doing a necessary job, i.e., being needed, to being expendable at any moment, even when they are lucky enough, for the time being, to have a job to go to in the morning. Even more of their workday ground has been taken away from beneath their feet than this suggests, for all the benefits that their trade unions have negotiated and “secured” on their behalf no longer apply vis-à-vis the privately owned companies for which they now tenuously work. They are informed early in the film, “The slate has been wiped clean.” In addition to having to piece together an income, and having to cope with the constant mental rattling that this imposes, they now have to pay for child care out of pocket. Another example of the new state of affairs for workers: no more sick pay. No work; no pay—and, now, whether a worker is healthy or ill, “no work” is exceptionally easy to come by. These men’s lives have been turned upside down, inside out.

The few representative workers whom Loach follows in the film attempt to meet the challenges of their “brave new world” with perseverence and dignity, and a concern for one another as well as themselves. But they have been thrown into a cauldron of competition even with one another. Continually throughout the film the men are lectured that worker safety is paramount; a poor reputation holds the potential for eliminating a company from the competitive pool altogether. However, in order not to exceed the impossibly low bid necessary for securing a job, corners are cut that jeopardize worker safety, placing worker safety on a collision course, as it were, with itself. Much of the film, while pursuing essentially comical situations and not-so-comical ones made bearable for the workers by their lively and very funny banter and repartee, shows the men being forced-fed a management viewpoint as the company imposes on its workers the company’s own anxiety over its survival, thus compounding the survival anxiety that the workers are already shouldering on their own behalf and turning it, before our eyes, into a demoralizing, undue and, ultimately, insupportable burden. The men’s humorous talk has always been part of their artillery for coping with hardship; now that privatization has both deepened and widened this hardship, the men’s good humor is required to do more than it possibly can. We see the same lightheartedness, but it’s more an illusion than ever before; beneath the surface, these men aren’t coping nearly as well as they once did. There is simply too much with which their behavioral outlets now must contend.

The imposition on workers of management anxiety, with this now compounding the workers’ own survival anxiety, accounts for much of the film’s unity, integrity and focus. Indeed, this harrowing process is telescoped, early on, in a most interesting, heartfelt and unexpected way. The manager at the site, held over from the days of nationalization in order to create at least some basis of stability for workers in the midst of such sea-changes, talks with the owner. Perhaps because he is also hankering for some sense of continuity, the man keeps returning to workers’ rights that, long since negotiated and agreed to, in his mind remain in place. At each reiteration of this, the owner presses the man to conform to the “new reality”; and, at each turn, the man reiterates his loyalty to management-labor history. Amazing. Ultimately, the owner knows just what to say to this man in order to shift his allegiance from the old order to the new. Either he gets on board or he loses his job; and, as proof that he is committed to the former course, he must now inform the workers that a (small) concession to them just agreed upon has been unilaterally cancelled by the company. The immediate purpose is to remove the concession; the real and larger purpose is to establish the company’s absolute authority vis-à-vis those the company hires. For the sake of economic survival, the manager capitulates. In a minor key, this anticipates the capitulation of a few workers to the inhuman program that the company has set forth. This is the tragic conclusion to which I’ve referred.

What exactly happens? In the dark of night, like (in the bright of day) the gardening-stinging insect-coronary event in David Lynch’s assault on Reaganism, Blue Velvet (1986), whatever happens, on one level, is unknowable and incomprehensible. It’s awesome and irreducible. On another level, as in the Lynch film, the event is clear-cut. A group of men have been hired to do a job too complex for their small number, and they balk about this from the outset. Management, however, prevails. A relay team is configured, where cement is mixed above the tracks and handed down to the lone track worker. The long, hard work, begun during daylight, continues into the night. The track worker is struck by a train. Moving him would risk killing him, but there is the company reputation to consider, which hinges on erasing evidence of this railway labor accident. If the stricken worker can be brought up to roadside, the rail accident might seem a road accident and, after all, the man might still live. The scene is so argumentative and beset with frenzy that the men can hardly be said to have made a decision regarding their fellow worker; rather, we may say that they are in the grip of commotion and rationalization. The worker dies.

There is so much to say about this appalling scene. Throughout the film, the workers’ solidarity, their existence, that is, as a mutually supportive community, is central and, really, off-work scenes largely exist to show how much more vulnerable, how “unprotected,” these boys/men are apart from that community—a community now undermined and fragmented: one of the by-products of privatization. This solidarity derived, of course, from their decency and humanity; however, shoring it up—solidifying the solidarity, if you will—was their daily combinate existence as a definable community whose identity, hence, security, depended on their equal participation in a mutually supportive community. Although some of them, on one job or another, still work together, privatization has eliminated the community, tossing each member between the two imperatives of serving the private company and managing somehow to survive in a situation where they no longer can rely on a steady income to support themselves and others, including children. While they still retain the form of community in an attempt at stabilization and continuity, not to mention their human need for comradery, they also now exist at odds with one another. Their denial of this outcome of their new predicament makes all the worse its effect on their actions vis-à-vis one another.

In this regard, Dawber and Loach (like Leigh in Naked) is merciless. It is insufficient to portray workers as now complicit with management in their disregard for a fellow worker. In the film’s most distressing shot, the backs of the men as the criminal accomplices walk away from Gerry, their union representative, signal complacency as well as conspiratorial moral idiocy. Instead of men who have ameliorated the new order, these are men whom the new order has reduced to husks of their former selves. Privatization has taken its ultimate toll: Those who (implicitly) understood that their social value was combinate and cooperative as well as individual have retreated into selfish, rationalizing egotism.

A friend of mine faults the film on this score; unionized workers, she insists, would never do this to one of their ranks. Perhaps; but an uncle of mine, a World War II soldier, was stripped and left for dead (which he wasn’t) by his own comrades in an army platoon. I simply don’t accept the position that these people, or those people, would never do this or never do that; I know differently. However, isn’t such a debate widely beside the point? This isn’t a tacked-on ending; it’s the final station on a journey that the film has charted with unerring attention to the sociopsychologies involved. The whole film leads us to where the film ends; the logic is unassailable. It isn’t necessary to accept the outcome as “realistic” or “naturalistic,” because art is perfectly entitled to be cautionary, so long as the outcome it presents adheres to the logic of an argument. In this case it does; the outcome perfectly realizes the sort of inhumanity that privatization breeds. There is such a thing as metaphor. Indeed, genuine (at least modern and postmodern) art almost never proceeds literally.

That said, there is so much to commend here, and I worry that, in emphasizing its tragic outcome, I scarcely allow for the possibility of conveying how generously funny this film is. (The audience with which I saw it, myself included, was weeping with laughter almost all the way through.) However, even the laughs themselves contribute to the film’s thematic development and unity. For example, there is an incident where, by convincing the site janitor that their take-out lunch includes a can of sardines, the men (in a comic conspiracy presaging the tragic one) motivate him to demand the sardines, which they themselves had inserted, when he picks up the take-out one day at the local delicatessen. Boys will be boys, and the set-piece—it is that—is boisterously funny. But two things: one, we grasp the continuity of fun the men are trying here to enforce to neutralize the upended situation of theirs as a result of the privatization; the men are doing their best to deny that anything has changed. The other point is more critical: the slipped-in and lied-about tin of sardines, although of course the men themselves do not realize this (it is Dawber’s and Loach’s insight, not the characters’), functions as a metaphor for the hyped-up promise of what the new order will bring—how it’s supposed to enhance the lives of workers. And workers go along. The trick against one of their own (although, note, that the janitor isn’t exactly one of their own) thus presents in benign, comical form a much huger, grimmer trick that is being perpetrated against all the workers by owner and management.

Indeed, much in this film “echoes” or hooks up to something else in a thematically developmental way. I noted before that workers at the Sheffield railway site are shorn of their child care allowance. This loss, as it happens, specifically plays out in the life of one of the workers, who also participates in one of the film’s (many) great images. Bringing a bouquet of flowers to his ex- or separated-from wife, he is firmly refused entrance. He is further frustrated when the mother of his daughters instructs him to pass the bouquet through her mail slot! He complies, only to see his hard-bought gift of roses decapitated: truly one of cinema’s funniest versions of sexual humiliation—and, again, a private incident that mirrors the psychological experience the man is enduring at work.

This is Paul, whom Joe Duttine beautifully plays. But all the acting in this film is exemplary. A particularly resonant character is Gerry, whose power as union representative has been neutered by the new order; Venn Tracey strikes the right balance between Gerry’s loss of a sense of self and continuing frustration at impressing upon management the needs and rights of workers. In Bread and Roses (1999), Loach treated us to an entirely new character, a union representative too young and too green to be competent—a role Adrien Brody plays astonishingly well; Gerry is the flip side of that role—an older union rep who, stripped of his power, finds his competence lying fallow and his optimism settling into defeatism. Now he plays chess with himself and remarks, “Whatever move you make, you lose.”

Incredibly, some have taken this line as indicative of Loach’s own pessimism. Not Ken Loach! Here is what he says about global capitalism—and it’s not the utterance of a defeated man: “[T]he facility to transfer capital around the world in an instant, searching for the fastest profit, is a challenge to the workers’ movement. The bureaucratic leadership of most unions in Britain seems incapable of meeting this. But the fight against casualisation, so-called flexibility, privatisation and redundancies calls for a new internationalism. If we are to have any chance of getting a few victories, particularly in the new integrated Europe, we must make and develop contacts at grassroots level. Whenever I’ve had the chance to see these contacts made, I’m always surprised at the immense good will and sense of solidarity that is waiting to flower.”

Flowers with their heads on.

Loach’s mise-en-scène is vibrant, “uncomposed,” overflowing with life. The key to this visual style here—it is Loach’s signature style—is the way the railway men work prior to having the hand of privatization, with all its mantra of “efficiency,” fall heavily upon them. At the outset they appear to work together so loosely; it’s only when we hear of their remarkable safety record that we realize that this apparent “looseness” is actually experience, competence and confidence thoroughly relaxed into. These are men who know their job. (These are Hawksian men.) But it’s precisely their experience, competence and confidence that privatization and its inhuman demands (pardon) derail, and therefore the continuation of this “loose” style, with the camera seemingly picking up by chance every bit of action, functions as sore irony, constantly bringing home by the discrepancy, between the men’s capabilities and the new roles they are being tortured into, how they are being abused and undone. These are men who can do their jobs who are not being allowed to do their jobs.

One of the film’s most gracious moments occurs when Paul and his young daughters are enjoying themselves skating at the public ice rink. Somebody else’s daughter, a little child on her delightful, intent own, is captured by the camera gesticulating to herself. I can’t say for certain, but I suspect this is a documentary moment. It’s wonderful—and perfectly in tune with the affection for children that the film otherwise displays. It’s relevant to note here that, at the 2001 Venice Film Festival, Loach won, for The Navigators, the Children and Cinema Award. Yes!

I’ve grown sick and tired of sentimental films. I prefer films, like this one, that are full of love.

* Since The Navigators Loach has made a greater film yet, requiring a revision of the estimate that the 2001 film is Ken Loach’s masterpiece. The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), about the birth and early history of the Irish Republican Army in the 1920s, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Although it has stirred a frightful bit of controversy at home, it is beautiful beyond compare.

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