Britain's Ken Loach has been directing films for 30 years, and if he is still not widely known outside film festivals, that may be because he adheres so fiercely to an unpopular subject matter: His best movies are about the ordinary lives of working-class English people.
With the Chicago premiere of his lacerating, brilliantly acted "Ladybird, Ladybird" (opening Friday at the Music Box) and "Ken Loach: British Provocateur," the continuing retrospective of his work at the Film Center of the Art Institute, it's possible to stand back, look at his career, realize how remarkable it is - and realize, too, that he is doing his best work right now.
Loach came out of a British working-class background and, despite studying law at Oxford, has rarely strayed from the kinds of characters he might have met while he was growing up.
In films like "Riff-Raff" (playing Jan. 27 and 29 at the Film Center), he studies the lives and values of construction workers who go where the work is, who have "no fixed abode," who see the class war in terms of their own daily lives. Most of his films are set in the present, but in the 1979 historical drama "Black Jack" (playing Jan. 20 and 22), he reconstructed 18th century Yorkshire in the story of a highwayman who joins a traveling circus and sees the society from the point of view of an outsider.
"Family Life," his 1971 film that plays Friday and Sunday, tells the harrowing story of a young girl who seems adrift and without motivation. Her parents blame the influence of "hippies," but actually, not much is seriously wrong with her until she gets into the clutches of the social services system, which by treating her as mad eventually makes her so.
There are parallels between "Family Life" and "Ladybird, Ladybird," Loach's latest and possibly best film, with its searing performance by Crissy Rock as a welfare mother whose irresponsibility and uncontrolled anger brings out the worst in the social workers assigned to her case. It's a film with no heroes: Loach dispassionately portrays the shortcomings on both sides.
Loach's other films, which have already played at the Film Center, include his best-known work, "Kes" (1970), about a young boy who drops out of school and finds freedom through identifying with the kestrel falcon he trains to hunt. "Poor Cow" (1967) starred Carol White, Terence Stamp and Malcolm McDowell in the story of rough working-class life in South London. "Raining Stones," which played in Chicago in 1994, was a more humorous and yet heart-rending story of an unemployed man trying to get enough money for his daughter's communion dress.
You can guess something of Loach's spirit if you know that "Riff-Raff" was filmed in such pronounced British accents that it had to be dubbed for its U.S. release. American audiences will miss some of the words in some of his other films, but they will not miss the emotion: In his best work, he captures the daily lives of people whose heart, humanity and stubbornness are their best weapons against a system that simply doesn't care.