Films are obviously made for many reasons, with some being produced solely for entertainment value and requiring 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. For one thing, 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 cityscapes and the countryside. Also, his film’s thematic material is typically quite challenging and zeros in on the seemingly universal discontent of an entire nation.
These qualities perfectly describe Loach’s 1981 effort, Looks and Smiles, 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 and profoundly disenfranchised through the economic climate of the period. Mick is, frankly, a bit of a misanthropic git and could almost be interpreted as a younger version of the Bob character from Loach’s later film, Raining Stones (which chronicles a very similar story). Mick spends his days loafing around the city with his friend, Alan and railing against the few rather 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 Mick strikes up a relationship with the sensitive, blustry yet adorable Karen – a shoe store worker.
Shot in beautiful black and white tones Smiles intially feels rather meandering and lacking in the same sort of social urgency that drives other Loach efforts. The film’s pacing is rather trying during the early sections of the story (which is saying something for a Loach film) and the film spends (at least what feels like) a great deal of time 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. And, finally, the film’s final scenes really seem to communicate in much more effective and nuanced manner than Raining Stones about the experience of existing in a society that seems to have no place for you.
Final Verdict: 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, (during the first sections of the film), the story picks up steam once Mick begins to explore his relationship with Karen. It is in the focus on their relationship that the film itself becomes more focused. It poignantly asserts the importance of who we surround ourselves with while living in an apathetic world.