Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle My Name Is Joe

By Marjorie Baumgarten

MARCH 8, 1999: 

D: Ken Loach; with Peter Mullen, Louise Goodall, Gary Lewis, Lorraine McIntosh, David McKay, Anne-Marie Kennedy. (R, 105 min.)

"My name is Joe." The words tell only half the story. The other half is the part that follows: "Ö and I'm an alcoholic." Joe (Mullen) has been clean and sober for nearly a year, but his volatile past as a drinker and a brawler is always chasing at his heels. Still, he believes in "fresh starts" and self-improvement and taking things one day at a time. He now lives on the public dole in an impoverished neighborhood in Glasgow, although he spends a great deal of time and energy coaching a soccer team of delinquent young men. Joe has taken a special interest in one of his players, Liam, a former junkie. Liam is also trying to stay clean and is inspired in this by the daily presence of his wife Sabine and their three-year-old son, but Sabine is having a harder time giving up the needle and her streetwalking income. While driving the team to a soccer match, Joe meets Sarah (Goodall), a public-health worker, whose clients include Liam and Sabine. Neither Joe nor Sarah is looking for a relationship: Joe is fearful because his last relationship ended with a bout of drunken violence and Sarah is simply content with her life as it is. Both are in their late 30s, and find themselves drawn to each other despite their original intentions. The naturalness of this comfortable yet tentative relationship is the movie's greatest accomplishment. Director Ken Loach is acclaimed around the world for the social realism of his uncompromising films (Carla's Song, Land and Freedom, Raining Stones, Ladybird, Ladybird). His leftist political perspective and social analysis is always integral to the dramas he tells. But with My Name Is Joe, Loach brings the drama down to a very human and personal level. The movie is chock-full of pointed moments in which we witness the toll of poverty on this impoverished neighborhood. Yet Joe and Sarah remain very real and recognizable characters, whose adult love affair is fraught with all the hesitancies of two people who thought that emotional dependency was not in their cards. The film becomes mired toward the end with an ultra-dramatic plot turn that has Joe slipping back under the thumb of a local crime boss in order to allow Liam and Sabine to escape his rotten clutches. It all becomes rather excessive, especially given the urban naturalism that has preceded it. However, as the lead characters Mullen and Goodall are so winning that it is a pleasure to spend time in their company. Mullen's performance deservedly earned him the best actor award at Cannes. Another of My Name Is Joe's distinctive delights is its inclusion of English subtitles, which proves to be just the right ticket for deciphering those thick Scottish brogues. As far as I know, it is the first English-language film to use English subtitles, and it would be nice if the practice would spread to other English-dialect films. In this case, it makes the difference between unintelligibility and easy comprehension.
3.0 stars

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