Saturday, August 31, 2019

Black Jack (Ken Loach, 1979)

Black Jack has the trappings of a classic kids’ adventure yarn – a boy falls in with an escaped convict and embarks on an eventful odyssey including a spell with a traveling fair, a girl who escapes an intended fate in the madhouse, multiple blackmails and a mysterious death. It’s certainly something of an oddity in Ken Loach’s oeuvre, and the director apparently views it as a disappointment, hampered by budgetary and other production constraints. But the film’s sparseness, the sense of not being quite fully formed and articulated, actually constitutes its main appeal – there’s something perversely enjoyable about how the basic exposition has to fight against thick accents and mushy articulation (it feels just about perfectly cast, exactly because of the imperfections of its people). The film avoids scenic overkill while sustaining a grubbily painterly quality, and the attention to detail is impressive: I don’t recall ever seeing a period film where the clothes are so authentically frayed and worn. By Loach’s standards, the film isn’t particularly explicit perhaps in diagnosing the surrounding society, but that makes a point in itself: for example, about the looseness of governing structures that allow a girl’s liberty to be signed away on the whim of her parents (on the other hand, it does establish that a strong-willed teenage boy can accomplish a lot, for good or for bad). This leads to an unusual climax in which the truth about that mysterious death is discovered, but without any apparent thought that the perpetrator might be brought to justice. The film delivers a traditional flourish at the end, with boy and girl escaping off to sea (by that point, the eponymous Black Jack has long ceased to be at the heart of the narrative), but overall its stubborn integrity places it with Jacques Demy’s The Pied Piper among the stranger supposedly child-friendly creations.

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