Riff-Raff (United Kingdom, 1992)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Stevie (Robert Carlyle) is an ex-con from Scotland struggling to start anew. In an attempt to change his life, he takes a construction job in North London where he meets an assortment of others who, in one way or another, are just like him. He has no place to live, and doesn't make enough to rent a flat, so his co-workers happily appropriate a "squat" for him. Soon after, he meets Susan (Emer McCourt), an aspiring singer with a lot of heart but very little talent. The narrative moves on from there, detailing a short period in the lives of Stevie, Susan, and the workers on the construction site.

Riff-Raff is a strikingly powerful film that combines a biting sense of humor with an uncompromising, true-to-life look at the lot of England's working class. While movies like this are often maudlin and sometimes depressingly difficult to watch, that's not the case here. Director Ken Loach (Hidden Agenda), with a keen sense of what makes people and relationships click, has guided his production down a narrow trail that perfectly balances comedy and drama. It's a daring move, and the film succeeds because Loach pulls it off.

Often, watching Riff-Raff is like viewing a home video. The realism is astonishing. Writer Bill Jesse (who died at the age of 48 and to whom the picture is dedicated) incorporated his own experience from years of construction work, and Loach cast only actors who had actually worked in construction. Says Loach, "The realism stems from Bill's writing and the people in the film. We tried to get everybody who had experience on building sites because they all had to work -- they all had to know how to do the job." It's equally apparent that everyone involved knew how to act, as well.

Riff-Raff is in English, but Fine Line Features has chosen to subtitle the movie (in English) for American consumption. Why? Presumably because the heavy accents of the working class are occasionally difficult to understand. Personally, I found the subtitles more distracting than useful.

Best of all, Riff-Raff is not a downer. There is a social message, but it doesn't bog down the film, perhaps because everything is told from the perspective of members of the lower class who view their lot pragmatically. No attempt is made to contrast the circumstances of the workers with those of the wealthy, so there isn't the seething sense of indignation and moral outrage that often accompanies films making similar statements. When one worker loses his job, instead of making an anguished display, he simply shrugs his shoulders, says goodbye to his fellows, and walks off, never to be seen again.

In Riff-Raff, Ken Loach has opened a window into a world that few movies dare to explore. This is not a commercial film, and therein lies one of the keys of its power -- without having to pander to a certain audience, it can tell the tale on its own terms. The powerful result relies on earthy humor and a vivid depiction of reality to drive home the point.

Riff-Raff (United Kingdom, 1992)

Director: Ken Loach
Cast: Robert Carlyle, Emer McCourt, Jimmy Coleman, George Moss, Ricky Tomlinson
Screenplay: Bill Jesse
Music: Stewart Copeland
U.S. Distributor: Fine Line Features
Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 1993-04-07
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Profanity, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled English
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: