Some films are made solely for entertainment value and require only a passive level of involvement. Ken Loach does not make those kind of movies. It would be difficult to find someone ready to describe any of Ken Loach’s films as rip-roaring entertainment. Many of his films are stark, minimalistic affairs, shot either in tight, unforgiving interior locations or out in the open, where his camera beautifully captures the harsh blankness of English cities and the countryside. Also, his film’s thematic material is typically quite challenging, zeroing in on the seemingly universal discontent of an entire nation.
These qualities perfectly describe Loach’s 1981 effort Looks and Smiles. It is a film that resonates strongly in our current epoch of financial disintegration and pervasive cynicism. Smiles relates the woes of Mick – a young, barely intelligible (to American ears) punk living in England – who is disenfranchised through the economic climate of the period. Mick is a bit of a misanthropic git, and could almost be interpreted as a younger version of the Bob character from Loach’s Raining Stones. Mick spends his days loafing around the city with his friend Alan, railing against the dismal job prospects he finds. The two friends find their aimless nature punctuated however once Alan joins the British army in an Ireland campaign (with intentions to open a can of “whup ass” on the Catholics), and when Mick strikes up a relationship with the sensitive, blustery yet adorable Karen – who a shoe store worker.
Shot in beautiful black and white tones, Looks and Smiles initially feels meandering and lacking in the social urgency that drives other Loach efforts. The film’s pacing is slow during the early sections of the story, and the film spends a great deal of time shooting the shit before the two men are separated. Still, once Loach is able to integrate the character of Karen the film becomes much more engaging. This is due partially to the actors sharing an easy chemistry, and also partially because their pairing allows Loach to strongly highlight the social, emotional and economic disillusionment that they both share.
The young performers, including Graham Green as Mick, Carolyn Nicholson as Karen and Tony Pitts as Alan, are all perfectly suitable for the roles and seamlessly pull off Loach’s naturalistic tone. For both Green and Nicholson, Looks and Smiles would be the first and last film they would ever do. Despite this inexperience however the contribute strongly to the film’s success.
Looks and Smiles is a characteristically grim and stripped-down character study from Loach that uses both the power of its black and white photography and its naturalistic tone to great effect. While somewhat of an endurance effort in terms of pacing, the story’s focus on the relationship of Mick and Karen makes the film involving. It poignantly communicates about the importance of relationships when living in a world of apathy.