Wednesday, April 7, 1999

Carla's Song

Posted By on Wed, Apr 7, 1999 at 12:00 AM

Director Ken Loach’s films used to be few and far between and rarely seen outside of Britain, but he’s become positively prolific during the past decade, beginning with his three-films-in-three-years set of Northern working-class strife – Riff-Raff (1992), Raining Stones (1993) and Ladybird, Ladybird (1994). These were naturalistic depictions of hand-to-mouth existence told with grit and humor, universal enough in appeal to establish Loach as an art house regular stateside, while still in need of subtitles to help Yanks navigate the thickly glottal Northern patois.

In 1995, with Land and Freedom, the director tackled the Spanish Civil War in a very Loach-like manner, eschewing guts and glory for the somewhat less panoramic vision of squabbling blokes in a political situation they only partly comprehend. This was followed by another historical drama, Carla’s Song (1996), and then a return to more familiar terrain with 1998’s My Name is Joe.

Carla’s Song is only now getting its – limited as usual – American release and, though one can only guess at why it’s been held up for three years, it is the least compelling of the films made during its director’s recent renaissance, being too long, too unfocused and just too bloody ambitious.

Set in the mid-’80s, the movie begins in the mode of comic romance as a Glasgow bus driver named George (the always engaging Robert Carlyle) falls in love with the beautiful but suicidal Nicaraguan refugee, Carla (Oyanka Cabezas). George is a familiar Loach type, a kind-hearted fuck-up, and the first part of the film moves between his cheeky on-the-job antics and some intimations from Carla of a horrible past.

For the second part of the film, Loach and his screenwriter Paul Laverty move the story to Nicaragua, and this is where the drama becomes slack, weighted down by a touristy sense of local color and capsulized polemics, the latter embodied by an ex-CIA agent turned Sandinista supporter named Bradley – an ill-conceived part which seems to stymie the usually fine Scott Glenn.

Carla’s Song has its moments – the Glasgow scenes, a Contra raid which makes its point without preaching – but it’s lesser Loach, full of good intentions and surprisingly hackneyed sentiment.

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