Despite possessing an unassuming, docudrama aesthetic, the films of Ken Loach often times feel immediately recognizable. This is why a film such as 1996′s Carla’s Song, where a good half of it takes place in Nicaragua, feels like it should be a bit of an anomaly for the director. However, Loach’s mark is still distinctively felt throughout the entirety of Carla’s Song. The film again showcases the director’s almost preternatural ability for telling stories about people whose aspirations conflict with the harsh realities of society’s monolithic institutions.
Carla’s Song is the story of George, (a committed performance by Robert Carlyle), a spirited and compassionate Glaswegian bus driver whose chance encounter with Carla, a Nicaraguan exile, irrevocably alters his life. Their fateful meeting occurs during one of George’s shifts, where George makes a sporadic decision to let Carla ride the bus for free and then intervenes when his superior attempts to reprimand Carla and prompt her for her legal work papers. A complicated relationship is soon formed between the two of them. However, when their budding romance is repeatedly marred by Carla experiencing bouts of post-traumatic stress (from her experiences during the Nicaraguan Revolution) and after George loses his job (due to his attempts to romance Carla) the two abruptly decide to travel back to Nicaragua and find Carla’s old boyfriend (who she became separated from during the Revolution) and hopefully catharsis.
Like most of Loach’s filmography Carla’s Song is a smart and (for the most part) impressively nuanced piece of work. However, the central love story between Carlyle’s George and Carla, (strongly embodied by Oyanka Cabezas in her first and final film role), while somewhat affecting, is given an inordinate amount of focus. This unfortunately detracts from Loach’s film and compromises its ability to carry the same level of socio-economic anxiety or political disavowal that drove the director’s best work in films such as Kes, , My Name is Joe and The Wind That Shakes The Barley.
This attribute might not be so unfortunate if the romantic relationship between the two characters was more effectively executed. The reason the relationship never becomes fully involving is not due to any shortcomings from the performances. Carlyle and Cabezas both offer believable and intense portraits of their characters’ inner lives. The problem lies predominately with Paul Laverty‘s perplexing script. Laverty chooses to depict the characters’ initial run-ins with each other in such a contrived and borderline creepy fashion that it mars the ability for an audience to empathize fully with these characters later on due to their initial connection being so brazenly weird.
Once the action shifts to Nicaragua the film develops more vitality because Loach begins to flesh out the film’s driving themes. One of these is the incompatibility of romantic idealism in a viciously complex world. Loach introduces the character of Bradley (played with an almost humorous level of intensity by Scott Glenn) during these sequences, an extremely caustic and haunted American doing humanitarian work in the country. Bradley is very, very familiar with Carla’s story and takes an almost instant dislike to George, who he believes is in way over his head. Of course, Bradley’s opinion is certainly valid and the film builds some of its strongest scenes around this idea that George’s love for Carla may be ultimately doomed by the force of those with economic interests in Nicaragua and the tide of Carla’s own history of violence.
Loach is successful with evoking a palpable sense of place, with the Nicaragua of Song feeling like a palpably real country in transition. Still, the film remains distressingly aloof from the actual inner-workings of the Nicaraguan conflict and pales in comparison to the complexity depicted in The Wind That Shakes The Barley regarding the dynamics of revolutionary action. There is only really one scene that attempts to probe some of the complex issues involved with the violence, a very strong conversation piece which illuminates the Nicaraguans’ zeal for more equity in the country’s property rights.
Final Verdict: Song attempts to balance the intimacies of its central character’s relationship while simultaneously examining the effects of huge global events. In both cases it is only partially successful and in both cases the script seems to be the element to blame. There are some interesting ideas expressed and the actors flex their emotive muscles well enough. Also, Loach’s trademark ability to eschew easy sentimentality is always appreciated. Still, the film doesn’t have the clarity or complexity of top-tier Loach efforts and instead of passionately erupting off the screen the film’s battle cry for social justice gets caught in its throat.